Fighting fatigue

Enform issues guidelines to help workers stay alert

Your life can change completely in a split second. You can never take safety for granted,” says Michael Barker, who, eight years ago, survived a life-altering accident during a summer work term.

“It was early morning and my friend and I were going to a site just outside Fort McMurray, (Alta.), for our shift. I was the passenger and fell asleep. But my friend who was ?driving ended up falling asleep too,” explains Barker.

The truck hit the ditch and flipped several times. When Barker regained consciousness at the hospital, he was told that his neck was broken. He’d been paralyzed from the waist down.

Barker doesn’t blame his friend. “Two weeks before the accident I had fallen asleep at the wheel myself, only the rumble strips woke me up. Most people have experienced driving tired. It could have happened to anyone.”

Enform, the safety association for Canada’s upstream oil and gas industry, has recognized the issue of rising workplace fatigue. With the development of a fatigue risk management committee, Enform worked with industry to release a set of guiding principles designed to help employers and workers recognize and address the issue of workplace fatigue.

“The guiding principles are an important first step — they represent an industry consensus and recognition that managing the risks associated with fatigue is a top priority and shared responsibility,” says Cameron MacGillivray, president and CEO of Enform in Calgary. “This is the beginning of a larger campaign to raise awareness, with a goal to mitigate the risks associated with fatigue and to reduce the number of fatigue-related injuries in ?the workplace.”

In the Fatigue Risk Management Guiding Principles fatigue is defined as a “state of reduced mental and physical alertness or functioning caused by sleep-related disruption or deprivation. This is a result of ?extended work hours, insufficient sleep, or the effects of sleep disorders, medical conditions or pharmaceuticals which impact sleep or ?increase drowsiness.”

Fatigue impacts everyone at different times. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), when workers have slept for less than five hours before work or when they have been awake for more than 16 hours, their chances of making mistakes at work due to ?fatigue are significantly increased.

According to Alberta Human ?Services (AHS), fatigue can affect a worker in the same way as alcohol and can impair reaction times, memory, logic or judgment. After 20 hours of sustained wakefulness, a worker may be as functionally impaired as someone with a blood alcohol concentration above the legal limit. AHS recommends that workers have between 7.5 and 8.5 hours of sleep per day.
Within the oil and gas industry, extended work shifts can drastically reduce the amount of time available to sleep because time outside of work is allotted for travel, eating ?and leisure.

Transport Canada says it is difficult for a worker to tell when his ?fatigue has reached a point where it is no longer safe to work or drive. That is why it is important to be aware of the physical, mental and emotional symptoms related to fatigue, such as heavy eyelids, difficulty concentrating or low motivation.

“Fatigue is an important issue ?every day,” says Ian Whyte, chair of Enform’s fatigue risk management committee. “It’s important because we’re all impacted by it. But our ?industry hasn’t been as proactive as other industries in managing fatigue, such as the airline and transportation industries.”

For example, to manage commercial driver fatigue, the North American Fatigue Management Program (NAFMP) was launched in 2013. The educational and training materials on its website provide a range of helpful information, such as how to develop a corporate culture that ?facilitates reduced driver fatigue and how to manage sleep disorders.

Within the upstream oil and gas industry, it has been difficult to identify how many injury incidents and near-miss incidents are related to workplace fatigue.

“We’re not asking the right ?questions,” explains Whyte. “During an incident investigation, we typically ask questions such as ‘Where are you in your shift rotation?’ or ‘How many hours are you into your current shift?’”

If a worker is six hours into the first day of his shift rotation, it’s assumed that fatigue is not an issue, he says. However, the investigation fails to ask questions around the types of ?activities the worker may have been exposed to during his week off, external stressors and how much sleep he may have had.

“Fatigue isn’t just about having one night of poor sleep; it is largely affected by your lifestyle. And people aren’t always comfortable answering questions about stressors, alcohol, addictions and other personal issues that impact sleep quality,” says Whyte.

Personal health issues, such as sleep apnea, insomnia and autoimmune disorders, can prevent high quality sleep. As part of the Canadian Community Health Survey, Statistics Canada determined 26 per cent of adults are at high risk for having sleep apnea, yet only three per cent reported being diagnosed with the disorder.

According to the Lung Association of Canada, if a driver has sleep apnea, his risk of a motor vehicle collision is seven times higher than normal. Sleep apnea may be treated by continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), which keeps the airways open during the night. Within one to three weeks of CPAP treatment, the risk of collision becomes the same as other drivers.

“Both employers and workers need to understand what kind of fatigue risks are present. Whether a worker suffers from a personal health issue or they’re just not adaptable to shift work, these issues need to be identified. Employers need to educate the workforce on the issues of fatigue and have processes in place to manage the risks,” says Whyte.

Occupational health and safety legislation requires employers to identify and control hazards, but there isn’t any specific legislation ?targeted at managing the risk of workplace fatigue. An employer must take the initiative to understand the impact of fatigue on its workforce and the risks it presents. Historically, the industry culture around fatigue hasn’t been risk-focused.

“Instead of celebrating a long shift and counting up the overtime pay coming in, workers should be ?performing a self-assessment to ?understand if they will be fit to ?perform the tasks on their schedule the following day,” suggests Whyte.

When both workers and managers are educated and communicate openly about fatigue risk, they can work together proactively to assess the risk at a beginning of a shift. Ideally, risk would be assessed again at every ?critical task within the shift.

During the risk assessment, it is critical to identify if alertness is going to be an issue for each activity that needs to be performed, and to determine what the consequences would be if there were a failure.

The next step for Enform’s fatigue risk management committee is to develop a Fatigue Risk Management Guideline for industry to use as part of a fatigue risk management program.

The guideline will help employers understand how to implement processes to identify and mitigate the risk of workplace fatigue, encouraging employers to be responsive and flexible. For example, a fatigued worker could be reassigned to a less risky ?activity during the shift.

“Fatigue impacts everyone — no one is immune to the effects of it. Fatigue can have serious impacts on our cognitive ability to work safely, but with a little knowledge it can be easily managed. The cure, in most cases, is adequate sleep,” says Whyte. “Within our industry, workplace ?fatigue is one of the easiest risks to control and yet it’s the risk that is probably most ignored.”

Stacy Kindopp is a freelance writer ?based in Calgary. She can be reached ?at (403) 809-8343 or ?[email protected] 

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2014 issue of Canadian Oil & Gas Safety, a COS publication.