Americans are known as a 24/7 society and often take pride in their sleep deprivation. Although some workers experience fatigue at work because of their lifestyle, the workplace is the root of fatigue for many workers. And, according to a study by the National Safety Council (NSC), 74% of employers underestimate the prevalence of fatigue in the workplace and 73% do not communicate with employees about fatigue.
Overtime, high risk hours (night or early morning), demanding jobs that require sustained attention physically and/or mentally, long shifts, quick shift returns, and no rest breaks are among the top fatigue risk factors identified by the NSC. The common argument made by employers is that productivity will be reduced if steps are taken to address fatigue. And the current employee shortage in many areas has exacerbated the problem.
Yet, as the work schedule progresses, workers tire naturally as they use up energy. Too few breaks and long shifts add to the strain on body and mind, leading to reduced alertness and lack of concentration. But employees are reluctant to say they are too tired to do their job safely for fear of being perceived as lazy, uncooperative, or losing needed overtime pay.
The result is not only a decline in productivity, but also increased accidents and near-misses. According to the NSC, 32% of reported injuries and near-misses are due to fatigued employees. Workplace fatigue problems can be cured, but the hurdle is recognizing the correlation between incidents and fatigue and developing solutions that are compatible with productivity objectives.
While each employer’s situation is unique, here are some considerations:
- Analyze the workload and staffing imbalances that necessitate excessive overtime. Look at options such as reengineering processes to reduce staff hours and cross training employees
- Rotate shift schedules to ensure no one is always on the night shift. 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
- Implement the 12-hour rule: make sure employees have 12 hours off between shifts
- Control the boredom factor by varying tasks. Employees doing monotonous work and tasks are more susceptible to fatigue
- Provide a designated area for employees to rest. A 15-30-minute power nap when working long shifts can be a great refresher
- Educate workers on the symptoms of fatigue, the impact of shift work on sleep-wake cycles and the best ways to manage it. Provide resources to deal with sleep disorders
- Let employees know they share responsibility with the company for preventing fatigue and, given adequate time away from work, they are responsible for getting enough sleep
- Use ergonomic equipment designed to reduce physical strains
- Provide plenty of water, healthy snacks
- Evaluate the lighting and temperature in the workplace as well as other environmental issues that can produce fatigue. Minimize humidity, noise, vibration
- Monitor fatigue. Research technology that fits your industry
- Have a risk management system, including reporting of fatigue-related incidents, investigation, training and auditing
Rather than adopting the attitude “that’s just the way things have to be to get the work done” understanding how the workplace is set up, how the work is handled, and how fatigue is a serious, costly risk can guide employers to develop a plan that mitigates risks and maintains productivity levels.
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