A wake-up call for risk management
Why should we bother about employee fatigue?
We all know what sleep deprivation feels like: after a poor night’s sleep, motivation and focusing can be more difficult to achieve and maintain.
Several scientific studies have revealed that sleep deprivation can have, to a certain extent, similar effects as the use of alcohol, including a decrease in alertness, as well as an increase in the risk of causing errors and a greater willingness to take risks.
In addition to individual impacts of sleep deprivation, fatigue can - and it will - increase many risks at the workplace. Think of your own work: what can happen in the worst-case scenario if you have difficulties in staying alert, focused or simply awake? Now think of someone working with heavy machinery, complex, rapid decision-making situations, or with dangerous chemicals. What is the worst-case scenario in their case?
And now: how has this risk been tackled in your company?
This simple scenario may reveal how fatigue is often a blind spot in risk management in many companies.
We have all experienced it, but what do we really know?
As the master’s thesis (featured in Fatigue in work-related accidents article) of Tuomas Kaleva confirmed, fatigue has been comprehensively studied, especially as a physiological phenomenon. During the past few years, sleep, sleep disorders and health issues relating to poor and/or too little sleep have been studied with increased interest. Following this, it is known that many of us do not sleep enough, or the quality of our sleep is poor, leading to day-time fatigue.
In recent decades, the research of human factors / ergonomics (HFE) has paid a lot of attention to alertness and focus. For example, it is already known that alertness varies throughout the day, and we perform quite seldom at our best. During the last few years, HFE research has changed the perspective from humans acting as planned, to systems and designs that (ideally) tolerate failures and errors that humans are more than probable to make. Over time this can contribute to safety by making our working environments and technical systems more error tolerant.
Yet, the master’s thesis of Tuomas Kaleva revealed that fatigue is actually very seldom explored when investigating incidents such as accidents and property losses in workplaces. The same goes with risk assessments: fatigue is rarely, if ever, considered in risk assessments and scenarios. The reasons for not including fatigue when assessing probable contributors to incidents is often very prosaic: as fatigue is considered to be a private issue, it is not asked.
Following this, we do not know whether fatigue has contributed to an accident or incident. An interesting finding is that fatigue is, by default, explored when investigating traffic accidents. Among professional drivers, e.g. in Finland, fatigue is actually considered to be such an inherent part of human performance that it is managed with compulsory breaks that are monitored technically.
How to manage the fatigue-related risks at workplaces?
As Kaleva pointed out in the literature review of his thesis, fatigue is a contributing factor in between 5-25% of traffic accidents and (at least) 13% of occupational accidents. Employees experiencing fatigue are at a 62% higher risk of an accident, and human errors increase by 54% when fatigued. It is notable that in the case of traffic accidents, fatigue increases the risk of serious accidents, as the drivers are not capable of reacting both correctly and quickly enough when needed. (Flanagan, 2014; NSC 2014a; Uehli et al., 2014)
Fatigue should be considered as a risk factor: it can increase both the probability and severity of other risks. Instead of looking for something that changes continuously and between individuals, it could make more sense to assess fatigue-related risks with scenarios. For example, making loss scenarios by combining the risk with lowered reaction times or faulty or delayed actions could help to identify those operations that are most vulnerable to fatigue.
Also, fatigue could also be approached when investigating losses. Most importantly, company safety culture should allow employees to report if they feel their alertness or capability to perform well enough to be temporarily lower than it should be.
In order to prevent fatigue-related risks, it is always good to advise employees to pursue a healthy lifestyle that includes also sleeping well and enough. The employer can simply acknowledge the value of sleep as a part of employee wellbeing and encourage the employees to rest and recover also during the workday, if needed.
In the case of shift work, it is often already an established practice to organise shifts to support the natural circadian rhythm. A blind spot may be employees engaging in business trips: although travelling may be an inherent part of work, there may not be enough time to recover after a number of early morning departures and/or late-night arrivals.
When sleep and fatigue become a part of discussion without the stigma of it being too personal a topic, it can also lead to risk-preventative actions that employees can make spontaneously to prevent fatigue-related incidents from happening.
If Insurance continues the work with the topic of understating fatigue-related risks and finding ways to manage them. As our client, read more about human factors in our Learning Hub (Introduction to Human Factors).
Flanagan, R. P. 2014. Employee fatigue in the U.S. railroad industry: In-depth analyses. New York: Nova Science Publishers. NSC. 2017a. Fatigue in the workplace: Causes & Consequences of Employee Fatigue. NSC Fatigue Survey Reports. Available: https://www.nsc.org/getmedia/5a0a7e87-9170-41a0-b28c-ce7b6ef3fc7e/fatigue-survey-report.pdf.aspx [Ref. 4.4.2022]
Uehli, K., Mehta, AJ., Miedinger, D., Hug, K., Schindler, C., Holsboer-Trachsler, E., Leuppi, JD., Künzli, N. 2014. Sleep problems and work injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sleep Med Rev. 2014 Feb;18(1):61-73. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2013.01.004