TT Talk - COVID-19: wake up to fatigue risk

Workplace fatigue

There is probably a common expectation that the supply chain operates 24/7 on pretty much a global basis. Such a commercial reality usually requires shift work and a workforce operating during unnatural hours - something that is only accentuated in our 'global village' with the requirement to provide a service across time zones.

In the context of the COVID-19 outbreak, stakeholders in the supply chain may be facing a perfect storm with increased workload but increasingly stretched resources. Availability of staff challenged through illness, unpredictable volumes, uncertain business, mandated relaxation of working hour regulations all strain the ability to deliver service expectations and meet contractual obligations. Without careful management, the supply chain is susceptible to a heightened risk of workplace fatigue. 

Stakeholders in the supply chain may be facing a perfect storm with increased workload but increasingly stretched resources.

Fatigue has the potential to lead to incidents in the operational workplace. It affects judgement and increases the likelihood of incorrect decisions, thus increasing risk. In extreme cases, fatigue can be linked to severe stress and mental illness - already prevalent during this pandemic. We return in this season to this previously considered topic.

What is fatigue?

Fatigue is the decline in mental and or physical performance as a result of prolonged exertion, lack of quality sleep, disruption of the body clock or extended periods of stress or anxiety. 

Humans have a built in natural drive for sleep at certain times of the day (the circadian rhythm). Melatonin levels (sleep hormone) increase and decrease through the 24-hour period and are affected by day-light and dark hours, forming part of the body's natural routine. Any disruption to this routine sees the body working against its own natural biological processes and arguably leaves us more prone to error and poor decision making. Other potential side effects are memory lapses, reduced risk perception and consequently an increased risk of accidents.

In the current scenario, including changed workplace routines and locations, revised safety and operational protocols, non-work personal and family health concerns lead to irritability, depression and loss of appetite, themselves signs of fatigue and stress.

As humans, we are generally not very good at self-assessing how tired/fatigued we are, and may find current demands and changes mask a greater underlying risk.

Getting enough rest

We all differ, but studies suggest that on average we need between 7.5 and 8.5 hours sleep per 24 hour period. It is known that night shift workers typically incur up to seven hours less sleep per week than day workers. Studies demonstrate the intensified impact of fatigue by those relied upon to work through night hours, which may be compounded by schedule changes for shift workers. Further evidence suggests that where an operating workforce is necessary during higher risk hours, there are optimal shift pattern options to follow. Where possible, shifts starting before 0700 should be avoided. The period between 0000 and 0400 is a particular period of risk. In terms of shift length, eight hours is considered optimal. It is also suggested that staff should work no more than seven eight-hour shifts consecutively, falling to a maximum of three where twelve hour shifts are required. It is important to build in sufficient rest periods throughout and between shifts. It is recommended that employers provide a minimum 11 hours' rest between shifts and a minimum two nights' rest between shift changes. The direction and speed of shift rotations are also fundamental considerations. Of course, the nature of the tasks being performed, work load and environment (light, temperature, noise) should all be considered when assessing fatigue risk. 

Amongst numerous sources to good material to consider, we would recommend information compiled by the UK HSE.

Fatigue risk management system (FRMS)

All stakeholders should consider developing a FRMS. Based on four key principles, the system should be:

  • unique to the organisation for which it is developed;
  • based on an assessed risk and evidence platform;
  • based on the principle of shared ownership; and
  • integrated into existing management systems.

The system will form a documented commitment to managing fatigue in a systematic manner and demonstrate engagement from an entity's leadership. It will be clear as to who it applies to, and identify roles and responsibilities, such as who is looking after working hours and monitoring. Other areas that should be considered include training, awareness enhancement, communications and self-reporting. In order to improve understanding of this type of risk, it is recommended to include fatigue consideration in accident investigations. Inevitably with such systems, there should be a commitment to audit and continuous improvement.

Unless already in place, such a system may not be able to be implemented at this time, but the principles can immediately promote better physical and mental performance, and reinforce a sound safety culture. Further it can provide management teams with data to empower them to make informed decisions and a greater degree of assurance of compliance with any relevant health and safety regulations.

National and international regulations (typically related to health and safety at work) will define employers' responsibilities regarding fatigue risks. During the pandemic, TT Club urges that careful consideration is given to maintain all practices that deliver safety and ensure that workforce well-being is kept at the forefront of decision-making.

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


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