Keeping Your Eyes Open

Fatigue in the workplace is nothing new and it can affect all of us. Exhaustion is one of the most common complaints of Canadian workers and it makes sense that most accidents happen during night shifts. Workplace fatigue is a legitimate occupational safety concern, creating risk for those working in jobs that require high levels of concentration and response.

The trick with combating the effects of fatigue on the job is to recognize when it’s actually happening. By its very nature, the effects of fatigue lower mental acuity, so it can be difficult to know what’s happening (before it’s too late). It’s hard to know how many accidents or near-misses happen on job sites due to worker fatigue, since statistics can’t track it specifically. By making it a part of your risk management program and applying specific training, job task modifications and environmental changes, you can minimize its effect overall.

Causes

Fatigue or deep tiredness can be the result of insufficient sleep or poor sleep quality, and can be heightened by your work environment and the types of tasks being performed. Feelings of fatigue can be increased by:

  • Shift work (internal ‘clock’ is disrupted)
  • Extra long work schedules
  • Stress & anxiety
  • Long periods of mental concentration
  • Extreme physical exertion
  • Performing tedious or repetitive tasks for long periods
  • Dim lighting or poor visibility
  • High temperatures
  • High noise levels
  • Becoming too comfortable in your working position
  • Illness or the use of medications

How It Affects Your Work

With a general decrease in alertness, workers can be at higher risk of injury due to accidents. No matter what the cause, fatigue can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Signs and symptoms can include:

  • Reduced decision making ability & shorter attention span
  • Forgetfulness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Slower reaction times
  • Increased errors in judgment
  • Reduced productivity & performance
  • Irritability
  • Tendency to take greater risks
  • Reduced communication skills
  • Experiencing ‘micro’ sleeps while working or driving

The really dangerous part of fatigue is that it’s very difficult to fight once it takes hold. No matter how hard you try, and no matter how professional you’re trying to be, it sneaks up on you and begins to affect your concentration and your judgment. Some studies have shown that a lack of sleep, or working extended consecutive hours, can have the same effect on you as having a blood alcohol level above the legal limit. Chronic or long-term fatigue also contributes to increased levels of illness, lost days and staff turnover.

Fighting Workplace Fatigue

Think of fighting fatigue as a two-step process – the things that you can do to manage your own health, and the things that can be done at work to help break the cycle.

  • Generally, everyone needs 7.5 to 8.5 hours of solid sleep per night in order to stay alert and healthy. If you’re consistently getting less, or if the quality of your sleep is not what it should be, then this is the best place to start. Sleep quality can be affected by shift work, caffeine, sleep apnea or other medical conditions, diet, alcohol and nicotine use. Always try and get enough sleep, and take steps to make sure that it’s as restful as it can be.
  • Aside from the sleep that workers get, taking care of their overall health can also contribute to being more alert and better prepared for the tasks at hand. If they eat properly, exercise and avoid excesses with alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes, they’ll be in much better shape to withstand the demands that the workplace puts on them.
  • Officially recognize that fatigue can be an occupational hazard and put steps in-place to help offset it. Train workers and supervisors to recognize the signs, review work practices to highlight the areas of greatest risk, and establish firm policies that deal with the issues.
  • Create realistic shift schedules that recognize high-risk job tasks and the need for greater levels of concentration. Also allow for worker commute times and accommodate the need for adequate periods of leisure time and rest.
  • Ensure that work areas are sufficiently well lit
  • Maintain consistent, comfortable workplace temperatures
  • Maintain reasonable noise levels
  • Take regularly scheduled breaks from job tasks in order to re-charge and re-set throughout shifts
  • Vary work tasks to avoid the monotony that can lead to mental fatigue
  • Communicate clearly to co-workers and supervisors if you are feeling overly tired or are having trouble concentrating. Create flexible work assignments in these cases so that individuals may move to tasks that are less safety-sensitive.
  • Provide areas where workers may nap before driving home, especially for more remote job sites

Not all job tasks were created equal, and anyone who requires higher-than-average levels of concentration in high-risk jobs absolutely needs to be well rested and well managed.

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