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One big yawn? Safety stands at the intersection of fatigue, automation

One big yawn? Safety stands at the intersection of fatigue, automation

As machines takes on more tasks previously handled by humans, safety experts say the automation of manufacturing processes may be contributing to workplace fatigue.

While technology may reduce the need for physical exertion, the more sedentary tasks assigned to workers may hinder their ability to stay alert on the job, they say.

The American Society of Safety Professionals is planning to more closely study what happens when workers are tasked with less physically demanding labor that requires more oversight of machinery and equipment, according to Lora Cavuoto, an 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 ASSP.

“There is a concern in terms of as you move into more automation, the tasks that individuals perform will change,” said Ms. Cavuoto, who said the new branch of fatigue research could produce results in a year. “On the mental side, it (is) more monitoring, and on the physical side you may be in a fixed location (and) it’s going to lead to more focused repetitive motion.”

All of which, experts agree, can lead to slowed or delayed reactions, mental exhaustion and lack of stimulation — factors that contribute to overall workplace fatigue. 

Numerous organizations are discussing how tiredness can lead to accidents and injuries. A survey released by the Itasca, Illinois-based National Safety Council in June found that 32% of reported injuries and near-misses are due to fatigued employees. And nearly 58% of U.S. manufacturing workers surveyed by ASSP researchers reported they had been fatigued at work over the past week, according to a study released earlier this month.

ASSP’s latest study, released on Jan. 3, also found that while advanced manufacturing has resulted in significant changes in manufacturing plants and on shop floors, influencing work demands and the working environment, the corresponding safety-related effects, including fatigue, “have not been captured on an industrywide scale.”

In terms of automation, reaction times are a focus of the planned deeper research project, according to Ms. Cavuoto, adding that “from the mental side you may have some reduced reaction because you are not engaged in the task that you are performing” when automation takes over.

“There might be slowed reaction on the mental fatigue side,” she said.

Lack of stimulation may be a factor in automated workplaces, said Scott Smith, Laguna Niguel, California-based director of ergonomics with Aon Global Risk Consulting.

“When you’re not stimulated and your brain is not thinking, you are not asked to make decisions, you could have a low mental demand on work (and) it could be easy for someone to drift off,” he said, adding that mental fatigue is not a general focus in automation risk management but has the potential to be.

“Low physical work wouldn’t cause fatigue,” he said, adding that when it comes to “mindless jobs” found in manufacturing sectors, “if the equipment is doing all the work you shouldn’t have localized fatigue but you might be in more of a sedentary activity which in itself could make you tired because you are not doing anything.”

Vikrum Ramaswamy, Nashville, Tennessee-based risk control manager for Safety National, said it’s a “fantastic idea” to study automation and fatigue risk.

“There are three contributors to workplace fatigue: One is poor sleep quality, two is poor diet and poor nutrition and hydration, and number three is workload — are you being overworked or underworked?” he said.

“Automation impacts that last category in both ways,” he said, adding that it raises the question of whether the worker is being “underutilized” or “worked too hard.”

Mike Stankard, Detroit-based national practice leader for manufacturing, industrial and materials for Aon PLC, said work is already being done to monitor employees for exhaustion.

There are “monitoring systems so that that they could track retinal behavior, facial and emotional recognition” attached to machinery and vehicles “so an employer can learn more about when a worker is bored.”

But the generalized understanding of what can lead to greater fatigue in manufacturing settings is still in the works, according to Mr. Stankard. 

“We are just learning more about how the employee is behaving and reacting to the work environment throughout the day,” he said.








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