TT Talk - Are you concerned about workforce fatigue?

Many organisations in the supply chain industry need to meet growing expectations to provide access to a 24/7/365 service. This commercial reality usually necessitates shift work, leading to workforce operating during what could be considered unnatural hours. This can be accentuated in a 'global village' with expectations to operate across time zones.

Recent studies suggest that operator fatigue could be a major contributor to incidents in the operational workplace, affecting the judgement and increasing the propensity to make what in hindsight could be considered incorrect decisions, thus increasing risk. In extremis, fatigue can be linked to severe stress and mental illness.

What is fatigue?

Fatigue is the state of feeling very tired, usually resulting from insufficient sleep, prolonged mental or physical work, or extended periods of stress or anxiety. Boring or repetitive tasks can intensify such feeling. Fatigue can be described either as an acute or chronic condition. Acute fatigue, often resulting from short term sleep loss or intense short periods of heavy workload, can easily be reversed by sleep and relaxation. Chronic fatigue syndrome is a more severe state of tiredness that is not immediately relieved by rest.

'One of the fundamental challenges associated with fatigue and stress is that they are not easy to identify, quantify or monitor'

One of the fundamental challenges associated with fatigue and stress is that they are not easy to identify, quantify or monitor. Signs of fatigue and stress can include irritability, depression, loss of appetite and an increased susceptibility to illness. Awareness therefore of the symptoms and effects of fatigue becomes critical in managing the related workplace risks.

The understood effects of fatigue include reduced decision making ability, reduced communication skills, reduced attention and vigilance, dulled reactions, increased tendency for risk taking and increased errors in judgement. It is not difficult therefore to correlate such effects with risks in the workplace, especially where individuals are working with machinery, moving parts and mobile equipment.

Getting enough rest

So how much sleep do we need? Each individual differs, but studies suggest on average somewhere between 7.5 and 8.5 hours sleep per 24 hour period is needed. Typically, a night shift worker will get 5 to 7 hours less sleep per week than a day worker. Humans naturally follow a biological clock, a cycle of sleep, wakefulness and alertness that is generally aligned with the hours of daylight.

Due to the 'unnatural' waking hours experienced by night, shift and extended time working, the effects of fatigue can be intensified when compared to those working a traditional day shift. Studies suggest that periods of intense fatigue are usually experienced during the hours where we instinctively require sleep the most, between 23:00 and 06:00. Furthermore, shift workers suffer from sleep deprivation because their sleep schedule changes frequently. Where shifts are rotated, experts recommend this is done clockwise in order to support the adjustment. This is because if you work say 1600 - 0000, you tend to sleep from around 0300 - 1100. If you then move to a shift beginning at 0800, your sleep pattern is disrupted, which is harmful to worker productivity. Workers reported an increase in productivity and happier working conditions in the clockwise rotation.

Assessing the impact of fatigue

A recent study sought to monitor personnel driving mobile equipment through the deployment of sophisticated camera technology installed in the vehicles. The equipment was mounted in the driving cab of the vehicles and monitored the behaviour and responsiveness of the operator. The associated software detected events such as where the eyes of the operator unwittingly closed for any prolonged period during their working hours.

The study started with an information campaign to the workers explaining the effects of fatigue, followed by two stages of monitoring. In the first stage the equipment was installed and only recorded fatigue events without alerting the driver, building a significant amount of information over a period. The second phase of the study introduced an audible warning if an 'event', related to prolonged eye closure, thus highlighting the issue to the operator.

The results of the study were illuminating. Notably and unsurprisingly, there was a much higher fatigue event rate during what was the traditional night shift, especially during the period 23:00 - 05:00. Events were recorded evidencing that operators could close their eyes for several seconds whilst driving the vehicle. Whilst this is inherently dangerous in any circumstances, when considered in the confined and often congested environment of a transport yard or container terminal, there is an increased risk of a high consequence incident. By way of context, travelling at 20 kph, a vehicle would travel in the region of 11 meters during an eye closure of just two seconds!

The introduction of an audible warning led to dramatic improvements; in some cases the number of events recorded reduced to zero. This suggests that once an individual is provided effective alerts and understands the impact of fatigue, self-management can overcome feelings of fatigue.

Considered management

In addition to such monitoring, there are a number of known environmental factors which can be modified in order to mitigate the associated risks of fatigue. Whilst not an exhaustive list, dim lighting, high temperatures, high levels of comfort, tasks which must be sustained for long periods and tasks which are repetitive, difficult, boring or monotonous can all lead to increased fatigue levels.

Workforce management often focuses on 'absenteeism', but there could be greater cost associated with 'presenteeism', where workers are unaware of the risks and continue to work.

'there could be greater cost associated with 'presenteeism'

Any attempt to address workplace fatigue and stress should start with engagement with the entire workforce to increase awareness and provide a broader recognition of this phenomenon. Workforce awareness about fatigue improves the ability to identify individual issues. Inclusion will be key in effective management to overcome barriers related to individual 'coping strategies' and strengthen feelings of workforce well-being and support.

We hope that you have found the above interesting. If you would like further information, or have any comments, please email us, or take this opportunity to forward to any colleagues who you may feel would be interested.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Peregrine Storrs-Fox

Risk Management Director, TT Club

Staff Author

TT Club