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Employee fatigue is the root of nearly one-third of injuries and near-misses in the workplace and experts are calling on productivity-centered employers to do their part in helping curb the widespread problem.
“In this day and time, employers are trying to get the max efficiency out of the workforce,” said Bill Spiers, Charlotte, North Carolina-based vice president, unit manager and risk control strategies practice leader for Lockton Cos. L.L.C. “So we (have been) talking about fatigue.”
Tactics employers need to embrace to tackle fatigue include alternating tasks, limiting overtime shifts and rotating shift schedules to ensure no one is always on the night shift, according to experts who say part of the hurdle is convincing employers to put employees before production.
“I think there is a growing awareness (of fatigue), but I think productivity trumps (that),” said Lora Cavuoto, a Buffalo, New York-based researcher with the Park Ridge, Illinois-based American Society of Safety Professionals and associate industrial and systems engineering professor at the University at Buffalo.
“You have (management) saying, that’s just the way things are going to be,” she added.
“In my experience, many (companies) are not getting it,” said David L. Barry, Kansas City, Missouri-based national director of casualty risk control and senior vice president in the risk control and claims advocacy practice for Willis Towers Watson P.L.C. “It’s difficult for people in the C-suite to recognize that fatigue is a problem.”
A survey released by the National Safety Council on June 13 found that 32% of reported injuries and near-misses are due to tired employees, and that 90% of employers want to understand the root causes of fatigue but that only 55% would adjust schedules or tasks to help curb the problem. The study also found that 74% of employers underestimate the prevalence of fatigue.
“Generally, we don’t focus on fatigue right away,” said Randy Klatt, a Portland, Maine-based director of loss control for MEMIC Group, which provides workers compensation insurance.
“If you have been using a knife for hours and hours (without incident) and then you cut yourself, we don’t think of fatigue,” he said. “But fatigue creeps up on you.”
The results of the recent study aren’t surprising, said Emily Whitcomb, senior program manager for the Itasca, Illinois-based National Safety Council, which has been studying workplace fatigue closely for nearly three years.
“One of the overarching themes is that we need to make sure fatigue is understood as a hazard in the workplace,” she said, adding that other studies are helping to drive the point.
The National Safety Council surveyed 2,000 employees in 2017 and found that 27% of them admitted to falling asleep on the job — sleep coming after hours of exhaustion due to a troublesome schedule that affects natural, human circadian rhythms that call for rest when it is dark outside.
Enter the first fix: rotate shifts and give workers a break from the all-night work, said Ms. Whitcomb.
Many vocations, such as health care and public safety, call for 24-hour availability, as the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health highlights in its literature on workplace fatigue. But other industries have also caught on, with workers on duty around the clock to serve a “24-hour society,” as NIOSH points out.
Yet workplace safety experts agree that subjecting an employee to the night shift indefinitely can be problematic.
“Circadian rhythms are real; your body does not like to be awake at night,” said Mr. Klatt. “The human body is designed to be awake from sunrise to sunset.”
But Mr. Klatt warns that immediately switching from night work to day work can cause even more problems if workers are not well-rested.
Which is why Ms. Whitcomb said a good approach would be to give employees ample time between shift schedule changes. The National Safety Council recommends scheduling a worker for the night shift for two weeks and then giving them time off and then scheduling for day shifts for two weeks, she said.
Workdays that extend past the traditional eight-hour day have also been pegged as problematic when it comes to safety, experts say.
“We have this culture that sometimes (it) benefits employees to work long hours. And it’s really a hazard,” said Ms. Whitcomb. “We need to be worried about not rewarding employees to work until they burn out.”
Overtime, for example, was discovered to be a contributing factor for one Willis Towers Watson client that was experiencing a string of small incidents and near-misses, said Mr. Barry.
“I was visiting with a company a while back and they were having a lot of accidents and mistakes …Turns out they were really busy (and) they were letting employees work 12-hour days, seven days a week. There is a pretty strong correlation” between the incidents and fatigue.
Controlling the boredom factor is another best practice, said Ms. Cavuoto.
“Make sure that you are not having monotonous work and tasks because (workers) are more susceptible to fatigue that way,” she said. “Make the work more varied."
Employees must do their part to ensure they get enough rest to perform their work duties, experts say.