Fatigue risk management: Inaction is not an option

by FM Media
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The negative effects of fatigue and how fatigue risk can be managed is shared by NEIL FINDLAY and MARK HOLMES of Circadian Australia.


Research shows that over 80 percent of all injuries, incidents and procedural deviations are the result of human error. Perhaps this is not surprising, as the human physiology is a highly complex machine. In fact, this human machine, with its thousands of nerves, sensors, muscles and a processor that science is still trying to unravel, has plenty scope for error – for things to go wrong. And, ultimately, Murphy’s Law applies.

But, what managers, business owners and company directors will find more unsettling is that over 60 percent of these same injuries, incidents and procedural deviations have fatigue as a causal factor, and sometimes the causal factor.

Contrary to popular opinion, the impact of fatigue affects blue collar and white collar workers equally. Fatigue is not just a problem for shift workers, truck drivers or miners; it doesn’t discriminate. It’s not related to gender, age or ethnicity; it affects everybody.


World-leading, peer-reviewed Australian research has proven that hours of wakefulness parallel blood alcohol content (BAC); 18 hours awake (working or not) equates to an impairment level of .05 BAC; and 22 hours awake equates to .08 BAC.

No organisation would allow an employee to undertake work after consuming four or five beers in the preceding hour or so; yet, if they are tired, their impairment in terms of reaction times, thinking ability and judgement is the same as if they were intoxicated.

There are now clearly established reputational, financial and legal implications for employers who disregard these well-established risks. Increasingly our communities, regulators and the courts are taking a strong view that they will not accept cavalier or lackadaisical attitudes to managing fatigue risk.

To add fuel to the fire, these problems really start to escalate when people are working night shifts; and just when we thought the problems could not get worse, some shift rosters actually add to the problem.

Research also shows that shift workers are the most severely impacted by a raft of additional problems – having significantly higher workers’ compensation costs and, disturbingly, having a 60 percent higher divorce rate.

It is well-established that when people become fatigued not only does their on-the-job productivity suffer, but so does their quality of work.


Clearly in the competitive global marketplace we’re experiencing, Australian businesses must identify and harness every opportunity to lower costs, improve safety and significantly improve productivity.

In this difficult environment where time is short, budgets are tight and competition is tough, no business can afford to overlook or ignore these issues.

But what can we do about it? Given the extraordinary diversity of our industries, within an increasingly complex marketplace, these problems can be hard to fix.

The first step for any business or organisation is to analyse its workplace and determine if there is a problem at all. After all, no one should expend scarce time and money chasing problems that don’t exist.

Fortunately, today there are many tools available to business owners, directors and managers to track these problems down, and deal with them if found.

Technologies such as actigraphy can be very useful in identifying personnel with sleep deficiencies or sleep disorders. Actigraphs are readily available in the marketplace and, subject to acceptable due diligence, the right devices can deliver sound results, enabling businesses to better identify and manage sleep-related issues.

There are also a number of forensic tools readily available online to help health and safety managers, shift managers and business owners investigate accidents and incidents to see if fatigue was a causal factor, and to what degree. Again, exercise normal due diligence before embarking on any such program to ensure the veracity of the technology. Bad data always leads to bad decisions.


Ultimately, in the quest to solve these problems it must be understood there is no substitute for sleep. No technology, strategy or (particularly) substance can take the place of adequate rest. To this end, working hours and shift rosters must be carefully designed to provide adequate sleep opportunity for people. Then, sleep conditions must be conducive to good sleep, ensuring that sleep opportunity is translated into actual sleep. This is known as sleep hygiene, and includes simple things such as having a darkened room, eliminating distracting noises and properly managing the hours leading up to the sleep.

Sound sleep practices include trying to go to bed at the same time each day or night, avoiding caffeine and large, heavy meals before going to bed, and avoiding the bright lights and stimuli from televisions, LED-backlit tablets and smartphones within an hour or so before going to bed.

Also important is having an elementary understanding of how the human body clock works. This body clock, known as the circadian cycle, affects every aspect of our daily life, including our body temperature and blood pressure. In particular, it affects our performance and impairment levels on a rolling, consistent, repeatable and measurable basis.

This means the circadian cycle resident in every single human being has a profound influence on our safety and performance levels.

The average person needs around seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Some people can survive and function quite well on as little as five or six hours; conversely, there are some who simply don’t function unless they get 10 or more hours of sleep. There is nothing wrong with these outliers; it is just how their DNA is wired up, and generally it cannot be changed.


The challenge for today’s managers and supervisors is to ensure that their people are safe and productive at work. This means providing their people with adequate opportunity to sleep and, where possible, ensuring that they take that opportunity and arrive at work fit for duty.

Company directors need to be confident that their businesses are operating productively and safely, and that good risk management practices are being employed. This includes identifying and mitigating fatigue risk in their workforce.

Fortunately, science and technologies are developing rapidly. Accurate, cost-effective solutions are now available to assist organisations to maintain a safe, productive workplace. Inaction is not an option.


Neil Findlay was active in the Australian transport and logistics sector for over 30 years, and is currently a fellow of AICD and CILTA, chairman of the Queensland Transport and Logistics Council, chairman of the Australian Freight Council Network, deputy chair of the Performance Based Standards Review Panel, National Heavy Vehicle Regulator and director of Circadian Australia.

Mark Holmes is the chairman of Circadian Australia. Holmes contributed to a webinar on Fatigue Incident Investigation and Prevention in the Workplace by the Australian Sleep Association, which can be viewed here: www.sleep.org.au/education/webinars/fatigue-incident-investigation-and-prevention-in-the-workplace.

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