Fatigue is an often overlooked hazard in the workplace. It can be as damaging to health as a lack of food or exercise. Fatigue can be caused by lack of sleep, work stress, tedious tasks, and long or poorly planned work shifts. This can cause poor concentration, memory lapses, reduced coordination, underestimation of risk, and carelessness. For many workplaces, the consequences only affect productivity. In others, it can be extremely dangerous.
Consequences of Fatigue
Fatigue can occur in all industries, but those that are at the highest risk are where people work long hours or many days in a row. According to the HSE fatigue causes injuries costing UK businesses up to £240 million per year and has been implicated in 20% of accidents on major roads. A 2019 report commissioned by Transport for London (TfL) surveyed bus drivers and found that 36% of respondents had experienced a ‘close call’ due to fatigue in the previous 12 months.
A lack of sleep can lead to poor concentration and slow reaction times. This makes accidents and injuries far more likely, particularly in dangerous environments. According to an American survey fatigue causes 13% of workplace injuries and sleep-deprived employees are 1.6 times more likely to suffer a workplace injury.
Fatigue has also been identified as a root cause of major incidents, including the Clapham Junction and Herald of Free Enterprise accidents.
39% of shift workers get fewer than six hours of sleep before work.
Shift workers in the UK are especially vulnerable to fatigue. Two-thirds of shift workers say that their health has suffered because of their schedule, and nearly half often have less than 12 hours between shifts. Things are particularly bad for night workers, who often struggle to sleep during the day because of noise and sunlight.
About one in five people in the UK work shifts, often performed by those on lower incomes. About three million of those work night shifts. For many of these people, shift work means a disruption to their circadian rhythm. This is the body’s internal clock that affects immune function, blood pressure and quality of sleep. Shift workers also produce less melatonin, the sleep hormone, which also has anti-oxidative properties.
The Working Time Regulations set limits on night work and weekly working hours. However, just following these is not enough to eliminate the risk of fatigue. An employer should also consider the workplace culture and the pressures it puts on employees.
Work hours should be scheduled without considering someone’s preference for shifts or willingness to work more. The employer must know the hours a person works and must take action to prevent any risk to the worker or others. Ideally, employees should work during the day rather than at night, consecutive day shifts should be restricted to five or six days and night shifts to four days. All workers should have at least two consecutive days off. Safety-sensitive work may have to be allocated to other employees or another time to take advantage of alertness.
If part of an employee’s job is to drive on the road, the employer is expected to assess the risks involved and put in place all “reasonably practicable” measures to manage those risks. These measures should ensure that their drivers are not at risk of falling asleep at the wheel.
What Can Employers Do?
Employers can play a crucial role in combating fatigue and supporting shift workers. A reliable system for recording work hours, overtime, shift-swapping, and on-call work is key for a fatigue risk management system. The system could also:
- Incorporate fatigue in risk assessments and keep them up-to-date with any changes in working patterns.
- Report, investigate, and audit incidents related to fatigue.
- Provide flexibility in scheduling shifts, but turn down requests for shifts that might result in extreme tiredness.
- Plan shifts that ensure employees have plenty of time to rest between shifts and try to keep shifts regular to minimise sleep disruption.
- Have a policy to manage shift-swapping between employees and limit overtime.
- Give employees plenty of breaks and ensure they do not ignore these during night shifts.
- Ensure delivery schedules give drivers time to take breaks during long journeys.
- Use flexible working hours, so that commuters do not have to rush at the start and end of the day.
Employers can educate shift workers on circadian rhythms, good sleep habits, and fatigue identification.
The HSE has an extract from an inspector toolkit that includes questions for checking how an employer manages employee fatigue.
HSE has guidance on shift work management for everyone involved, including employees and safety representatives. It includes good practice guidelines on how to reduce the risks and negative impact of shift work.
Whatever the nature of a business, employees must be well rested. Sleeptember is an annual awareness campaign that runs throughout September. It looks at how you can achieve better sleep and what benefits a good night’s sleep can bring.
A well-rested employee is a safer and more productive employee. Whatever the business, fatigue risk management is an important part of keeping employees healthy and safe.
New Broom Training offer consultancy services and can advise on H&S risk assessments.