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Workplace fatigue problems can be curbed, experts say

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Employers wishing to combat fatigue in the workplace can do so by alternating tasks, limiting overtime shifts and rotating shift schedules to ensure no one is always on the night shift, according to experts.

The hurdle is getting managers to take on solutions that can limit workplace accidents because of concerns that such solutions come at the expense of productivity, experts say.

A survey released by the National Safety Council on June 13 found that 32% of reported injuries and near-misses are due to fatigued employees.

“I think there is a growing awareness (of fatigue in the workplace), but I think productivity trumps (that),” said Lora Cavuoto, Buffalo, New York-based associate industrial and systems engineering professor at the University at Buffalo who studies workplace fatigue and works as a researcher with the Park Ridge, Illinois-based American Society of Safety Professionals.

“You have (management) saying, that’s just the way things are going to be,” she added.

Management can better control the fatigue situation facing shift workers — the ongoing issue of being tired and making mistakes, Ms. Cavuoto said.

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.

The council’s report found that 90% of employers want to understand root causes of employees’ fatigue, but only 55% say they will adjust schedules or tasks. Meanwhile, 74% of employers underestimate the prevalence of fatigue in the workforce, and 73% do not communicate with employees about fatigue.

“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 incentives to work more hours to make more money are part of the problem. “We have this culture that sometimes (it) benefits employees to work long hours. And it’s really a hazard.”

While employers can’t control a worker’s life outside of the workplace, they can control such factors as overtime scheduling and which tasks are done during their shifts: two elements experts say can quell the risk.

Overtime, for example, was a big problem for one Willis Towers Watson P.L.C. client that was experiencing a string of small incidents and near-misses, 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.

“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.

Another culprit is assigning workers to the night shift indefinitely and not giving workers adequate number of hours off between shifts, said Ms. Whitcomb. Rotating shifts is a best practice that entails 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.

Employers could also implement the 12-hour rule: making sure employees have 12 hours off between shifts, said Ms. Whitcomb.

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. Make sure there is some rotation in the tasks that are being performed.”