19.12.2007

Fatigue - The Foe You Don't Want to Know at Work

Staying awake for 21 hours straight affects the human body almost exactly like
a high blood alcohol level exceeding the legal limit for drivers. Sleep
researchers say drowsy drivers may cause as many automobile crashes as impaired
drivers.

Now let's translate that to the workplace where someone might have to make
important decisions, handle dangerous chemicals, operate heavy equipment or use
a sharp knife. It's not hard to realize that work and fatigue don't mix.

Fatigue is the state of feeling very tired, weary or sleepy because of too
little or inadequate sleep, prolonged mental or physical work, or extended
periods of stress or anxiety. It varies, but on average we need at least 7.5 to
8.5 hours everyday. While it's always possible to reverse a short-lived or
"acute" state of fatigue by catching up on sleep and rest, chronic fatigue may
require a doctor's intervention.

Besides tiredness and drowsiness, other telltale symptoms of fatigue include
irritability, depression, giddiness, loss of appetite, digestive problems, and
an increased susceptibility to illness.

A recipe for shoddy, unsafe work

Fatigue affects:


  • judgement,

  • concentration,

  • hand-eye coordination,

  • visual perception,

  • communication skills,

  • productivity,

  • performance, and

  • ability to make decisions, do complex planning, and handle stress.

It slows reaction time, and contributes to loss of memory and ability to recall
details, while increasing the tendency to take risks. Fatigued workers tend to
become moody, have higher absenteeism and turnover rates, incur more medical
costs and have a greater tendency to get hurt on the job. They also have a hard
time staying awake and, to top it all off, are often too drowsy to realize they
have dozed off or are not functioning well.

Does fatigue affect workers' safety? Science has yet to clearly support the
link between fatigue and workplace accidents, however, Alberta Human Resources
and Employment reports that most accidents happen when people are more likely
to want sleep, between midnight and 6 am, and between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m.

Fatigue from work can be the result of long hours of mental or physical work,
work shifts that are too close together without sufficient breaks, inadequate
rest, stress, or a combination of these factors. Some people are more prone to
fatigue if they live an unhealthy lifestyle or have ongoing problems and stress
in the workplace.

Shift work, a necessary part of the working world, is another significant
culprit. The human body is designed to sleep at night and cannot function at
full capacity when its natural patterns are interrupted. Waking up, eating, and
sleeping at unnatural hours upset our internal "circadian" clocks, which is why
shift workers tend to be a little less awake on the job and a little less
rested after sleeping. Studies have shown that one shift worker in five dozes
off during a shift.

Other contributors to fatigue are poor workplace conditions (such as lonely or
boring jobs), job dissatisfaction, heavy workloads, constant change and
uncertainty, and burnout from overwork.

What employers can do

The Canadian National Institute for Working Life estimates that sleep-deprived
workers cost $350 billion US per year worldwide. It is in the employer's best
interest to:

  • Make sure the work environment doesn't promote fatigue. Try to avoid dim
    lighting, toasty temperatures and reduce noise.

  • Vary job tasks to eliminate repetition or long stints of boring, monotonous
    work.

  • Train workers on the importance of getting enough rest and how to achieve
    work-life balance.

  • Introduce shorter shifts, and rotate shifts in the direction of the sun
    (morning, afternoon, night, in that order).

There is probably much more that employers can do. The suggestions above are by
no means a comprehensive list, but rather just a few examples of strategies an
employer may want to use.

Workers, too, can fight fatigue

Here's what you can do to minimize the effects of fatigue:

  • Avoid driving if you are tired, especially in inclement weather where vision
    is impaired.

  • Avoid excessive noise.

  • Eat a healthy diet that promotes longer-lasting energy. Complex carbohydrates
    (starch) are preferable to simple carbohydrates (sugar). Avoid fatty foods and
    junk food.

  • Adopt a steady exercise routine that includes cardiovascular, muscle
    strengthening and flexibility workouts.

  • Make every effort to get at least 7.5 - 8.5 hours of sleep per night.

  • Stay positive. Make a conscious effort not to be overwhelmed by negative
    circumstances.

Further Information


AplusA-online.de - Source: Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety