Estimates that workplace fatigue costs the UK up to £240 million each year underscore need to manage this area.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that fatigue costs the UK £115-£240 million each year in work-related incidents and is implicated in around 20% of accidents on our major roads.

Unchecked, fatigue can have many repercussions ranging from reduced productivity and minor mistakes to injuries or more serious consequences. It has been implicated in some of the most significant health and safety incidents in recent history, for example Chernobyl, Clapham Junction and Exxon Valdez.

What is Fatigue?

Fatigue is more than feeling tired or weary, it is extreme exhaustion, usually caused by excessive physical or mental exertion. Each person will experience fatigue differently, but common symptoms are:

  • slower reactions
  • difficulty processing information
  • decreased awareness
  • lapses in attention
  • underestimation of risk
  • memory lapses
  • reduced coordination.

It is not difficult to see how any one of these symptoms could be potentially hazardous in the work place and this is why the HSE treats fatigue as a health and safety matter. http://www.hse.gov.uk/humanfactors/topics/fatigue.htm

What causes Fatigue?

Much as the symptoms of fatigue vary from person to person, so can the causes, many of which may not be work-related. However given the risks associated with the condition it is essential that employers take it seriously and recognise the circumstances that may contribute to or exacerbate fatigue.

The following is by no means an exhaustive list of workplace contributors to fatigue but provides a good guide to some of the key risk areas.

  • Long working hours
  • poorly designed shift patterns
  • badly managed workloads
  • monotonous, complex or machine-paced work
  • stress
  • poor eating habits.

A range of studies have found that people who work shifts are at a greater risk of fatigue, concluding that they caused reduced duration of sleep, fatigue and reduction in alertness (Smith et al, 1998; van der Hulst, 2003) and that shift workers may experience decreased reaction time and poorer work performance (Scott et al, 2006).

Managing Fatigue

Under the Working Time Regulations (1998) employers are obliged to offer health assessments to anyone working nights. It is up to individual organisations how they approach this process which has unfortunately led to confusion and suspicion in some cases regarding the motivation behind the assessment. This may not be helped by the fact that employees are not required to undertake the assessment and can withdraw consent at any time.

However, if managed correctly, proper assessments can be an invaluable aid in supporting employees working long hours, shifts or undertaking monotonous tasks.

One of the most commonly used tools is the fatigue index (FI). It was developed by the HSE in 2006 to measure the effects of a rotating shift pattern within the Railway (Safety Critical Work) Regulations, and has since been updated and modified to encompass a growing variety of working environments and practices.

In addition to individual assessments, good monitoring practices can also help to flag up areas that may need consideration. Most companies already monitor productivity, product quality, client retention, lead generation etc. This data can provide invaluable insight into a particular time of day, year or working schedule where there may be a drop in quality of work or a significant increase in necessary overtime that could signify an area that requires consideration.

Minimising the causes of fatigue

Identifying possible high risk areas is the first step in minimising the impact of work-place fatigue, however there are other actions that should be considered.

  • Provide good lighting and avoid low lighting
  • wherever possible keep temperatures comfortable avoiding high or low extremes
  • keep noise at a reasonable level, loud noises can contribute to fatigue
  • try to ensure that work duties are varied and offer some interest
  • plan adequate break times
  • minimise permanent night-shifts
  • allow sufficient rest and free time between shifts
  • consider circadian rhythms (roughly 24 hour cycle with a dip in alertness between 2am – 4am and 1pm – 3pm) when planning rotas.
  • provide plenty of chilled water throughout the workplace
  • ensure that annual leave is taken
  • minimise overtime pinch points.

In certain circumstances it may be worth considering providing on-site accommodation or facilities so that employees can rest or nap before a long drive home.

As with most OH issues, fatigue can be managed with appropriate awareness, education and consultation. Working with employees and management to establish causes, aggravating factors and find appropriate solutions is key to minimising workplace fatigue and the sometimes devastating impact it can have on an individual or organisation.