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What Can You Do to Prevent Accidents Caused by Worker Fatigue?

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We have talked about the risks and costs of worker fatigue.  Now, we focus on what you can do to deal with it before it causes an accident.

One encouraging sign of action on the issue of worker fatigue is a 2012 guidance document published by an American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) task force. The document provides guidelines for creating a Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS) in the workplace.

An FRMS should be data-driven and feature flexible strategies that are appropriate to the risk and the nature of the business.

The ACOEM task force identified five levels of defense against accidents and errors caused by fatigue. When taken together, these provide a supporting framework for an FRMS.

1. Staffing. One of the most important but overlooked causes of employee fatigue is an imbalance between workload and staffing levels. If staffing levels are lower than optimal, employees have to work additional hours or extra shifts. But overtime is often not evenly distributed. Investigators looking into the tragic BP refinery explosion in Texas (15 deaths and 170 injuries) found that control room operators were working their 30th consecutive shift.

2. Shiftwork. The ACOEM recommends a combination of three strategies to reduce fatigue during shiftwork:

  • Design schedules that permit frequent opportunities to get nighttime sleep to recover from sleep deprivation on the night shift.
  • Train workers to make maximum use of daytime sleep opportunities through naps and other tactics.
  • Use environmental and task engineering that maximizes alertness on the job.

3. Employee training and sleep disorder management. Employees should be trained in the prevalence, impact, and health risks of sleep disorders. They should also learn about recommended practices, such as:

  • Wake up at the same time every day, if possible.
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine before bed.
  • Exercise, but not within 3 hours of going to bed.
  • Sleep in a dark, quiet, cool room.
  • Keep a sleep diary to record sleep patterns and problems.
  • Nap, but not if you suffer from insomnia.

To manage sleep disorders in the workplace, ACOEM says that the first step is to screen for sleep disorders through a questionnaire, possibly combined with a physical exam.

Treatment can include:

  • Behavior modification
  • Continuous positive airway pressure (C-PAP) equipment
  • Medications

Some transportation companies have seen a 30% drop in accidents and costs after implementing a workplace sleep disorder program.

4. Work environment. Take steps to increase employee alertness, including changes in:

  • Light
  • Temperature
  • Humidity
  • Noise
  • Ergonomic design

Other recommendations include providing breaks for:

  • Food
  • Exercise
  • Conversation
  • Naps

Heavy, fatiguing work may require more breaks than lighter activity, and workers whose jobs require constant vigilance may need extra breaks to sustain their attention.

5. Individual risk assessment. Employees and supervisors should be alert to signs of excess fatigue. Co-workers should keep an eye on those they work with. Supervisors should have authority to take steps like encouraging a rest break, shifting safety-sensitive activities to others, or using a buddy approach to improve alertness.

The most practical way to identify risk is to be aware of signs of excessive fatigue such as:

  • Yawning
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Head dropping
  • Micro-sleeps
  • Lapses in attention
  • Accidentally doing the wrong thing
  • Failing to communicate important information

To monitor signs of fatigue, some organizations use peer observation teams like those used for other types of safety surveillance, such as behavioral safety observations.