Work fatigue can cause or contribute to very serious workplace incidents
Work fatigue has caused or contributed to some of the most serious and well-known disasters of the last few decades. The Space Shuttle Challenger incident, which killed all seven crew members in January 1986, was due in part to human error and poor judgment caused by sleep loss and shift work during the early morning hours, according to an official report. Lack of sleep may have contributed to the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in 1986, which was caused by human error and occurred just after midnight. Two plant workers were killed in the incident, and there were 134 subsequent deaths from radiation poisoning. The Three Mile Island nuclear plant incident (1979) and the Exxon Valdez oil spill (1989) have also been attributed to sleep-related errors in performance or judgment.
When workers are fatigued, the risk of making mistakes is significantly increased. Fatigue is a hazard for all workers but especially for high-risk workers, including shift workers. Yet, fatigue is often difficult to identify in the workplace. New kinds of technologies promise to help safety managers and workers become more aware of fatigue to reduce the incidents and injuries it causes.
“Studies have shown that lack of sleep acts as an impairment. And it affects safety,” says Desira Rostad, business manager at the Regina-based Safety Association of Saskatchewan Manufacturers (SASM). “There are people who have shift work or night work, drivers who may work extended hours or who are on call. When schedules are always changing, when you keep changing people from day to night, night to day, it has a negative effect on their sleeping pattern. That adds to the fatigue in the workplace.”
Almost 30 per cent of Canadian workers report being fatigued most days or every day during a typical workweek, according to The Conference Board of Canada. Among workers at highest risk are those who work in mining and in commercial trucking. In fact, the Canadian Council of Motor Transportation Administrators has stated that 20 per cent of motor vehicle collisions are linked to fatigue.
Fatigue may be the result of lack of sleep, shift work, prolonged mental or physical work and long periods of stress or anxiety. Lack of sleep can be caused by anxiety, taking certain medications, health problems (including depression and sleep apnea) and poor sleep habits.
Environmental factors can also promote fatigue, including work sites with dim lighting, limited visual acuity (due to weather, for example), high temperatures, high noise and high comfort. Performing tasks that are repetitive, difficult, boring or monotonous can also increase susceptibility to fatigue.
Studies have shown that when workers have slept for less than five hours before work or when they have been awake for more than 16 hours, their chance of making mistakes due to fatigue are greatly increased. Workers should get at least between 7.5 and 8.5 hours of sleep per day.
Lack of sleep decreases memory and decision-making ability; reaction time; ability to do complex planning; communication skills; productivity and performance; attention and vigilance; and the ability to handle stress.
Fortunately, there are many new technologies on the market to help employers reduce the negative effects of fatigue in their workplace. One such technology, made by Fatigue Science, uses a “biomathematical” fatigue model, called SAFTE, and computer algorithms to predict a worker’s fatigue impairment throughout the day, says David Trotter, senior vice-president, sales and marketing at Vancouver-based Fatigue Science.
Before going to sleep each night, a worker puts on a wristband or “Readiband.” The wearable tracks when the person goes to sleep, how often they awaken during the night and how much they move around and when they wake up.
Data is first collected over a period of days, weeks or months. That historic sleep data, along with other factors such as the individual’s circadian rhythm and time zone (an indication of the amount of light a person gets), are then analyzed by the SAFTE model and algorithm to come up with a prediction of the worker’s fatigue throughout the day ahead. It indicates fatigue “curve” — the peaks and troughs that occur during the day.
Fatigue level is indicated by a “Readiscore” — a number between zero and 100, where 100 represents full cognitive ability and optimal reaction time.
“If someone has a Readiscore of 70, that means they have the same cognitive ability and reaction time as someone who has a blood alcohol content of 0.08 per cent. So, obviously, I wouldn’t want to drive a vehicle or do anything that is high risk,” Trotter says.
Creating awareness among individual workers is one of the main benefits of the technology, he says. It also gives them information to decide when they will do certain tasks; performing high-risk tasks when they know their cognitive ability is at a good level and saving other tasks for times when they are tired.
Workers can also receive alerts and push notifications.
“You can get an alert to your phone saying, ‘Hey, 60 minutes from now, you’re going to be highly fatigued, take caution.’ That gives the worker the chance to take a rest, if possible, or they may want to have a cup of coffee,” Trotter says.
In some jurisdictions, and if the company has the employee’s approval, it may also be possible for a manager to see a worker’s data and intervene, moving a task to a different time of the day, when the worker is expected to be less tired or even getting workers to exchange tasks.
“What our employers are not doing is they’re not generally using it to disqualify people from working. It’s not a negative, punitive thing to an employee. It’s much more about how do you adjust workflows over time so that people are in a more rested state,” Trotter says.
For organizations, the technology provides information on the cumulative fatigue occurring in a particular shift or location. This data can lead them to look for something in their shift patterns, for example, or in the employees’ travel to and from work, that they can adjust to reduce their fatigue risk.
“We’ve had employers that will adjust work hours. They might adjust [remote] workers’ sleeping quarters; for example, you put them in a hotel that is quieter and has blackout. There are lots of things they may do. They may also recognize that there’s a certain portion of their workforce that may have a clinical sleep issue as well,” Trotter says.
The key industries for Fatigue Science are mining, construction, oil and gas and, more recently, manufacturing. The company has also found a market for its technology in non-industrial organizations: in the military and high-performance sports teams.
An alternative fatigue technology measures cognitive impairment and alertness by workers’ ability to do a brief, game-like test before starting a shift. Two brands available now are Aware4Duty, made by Aware360, and Predictive Safety’s AlertMeter (which is distributed by SASM).
The test is based on the psychomotor vigilance task (PVT), a sustained-attention, reaction-timed task that measures how fast subjects respond to a visual stimulus, which was used on the International Space Station by crew members to identify when their performance capability was degraded by fatigue-related conditions.
“It’s similar to a brain game or memory game. The worker is shown a series of shapes and asked to identify whether any shape is different from the rest or whether they are all the same,” says Garrett Desruisseaux, senior product manager at Calgary-based Aware360.
Workers do the test on their smartphone or tablet. While they are doing a test, which takes less than a minute, the system measures the worker’s response time and accuracy. It also identifies individual peculiarities in the way the worker does the test. For example, where one person will sacrifice speed for the sake of accuracy, another will do the opposite. An employee starts by doing the test 10 times to establish a standard or baseline that reflects that worker’s normal range. The baseline is unique to that worker and will be compared against all future test results. Those who score inside their normal range carry on and start their shift. For those who score outside their normal range, what action they take next will depend on company policy.
Supervisors are notified of workers who have not taken the test by the specified time and also of workers who took the test but scored outside their normal range.
Greg Adamietz, vice-president of sales at Denver, Colo.-based Predictive Safety SRP, says this type of technology is a valuable tool for managers, especially where it is impossible for a manager to single out potentially sleep-deprived employees.
“We now have a third-party, empirical data-driven tool that is clinically validated to detect fatigue telling you, as a shift supervisor, that out of your 75 folks, be sure to check in with these three because they are informing the system that something is not right.”
Rostad says SASM decided to distribute the AlertMeter in part because it thought it would be useful for member manufacturers, some of which have a large number of workers and several buildings on one site.
“Managers don’t have time to go out and talk to each person one on one. This technology lets you know that, for example, Bob is off his game today. And you go out and talk to Bob. Maybe he’s dealing with some issues at home or other things that are distracting him that day. Then, as that supervisor, you can gauge whether he should be doing a job that is safety sensitive, which could injure him or other workers. Or maybe there’s another job you could give him to work on. So, this is a great tool to help the supervisors recognize if somebody isn’t fit for duty and start that conversation with them,” she says.
In addition to taking it at the start of a shift, the test can be taken again later in the day. In higher risk-environments, a worker could take it at the end of the shift if, for example, they’re overtired and not able to drive home.
“We also see the system deployed right before a critically important task,” Adamietz says. “Imagine you’re a crane operator, you’re about to walk up to the top of the crane and move 500 tons over a main street. Before you do that, maybe you want to engage the AlertMeter and make sure you’ve got your game face on and you’re fit for this activity.”
Over time, the baseline score continues to adapt to a worker’s performance on the tests, adjusting to frequent higher or lower scores.
“That’s because, obviously, there are different factors going on in a person’s life that may affect the amount of sleep they receive. For example, if I have a baby, I’m suddenly getting a lot less sleep, so the baseline will adjust,” Desruisseaux says.
AlertMeter and Aware4Duty sell to industries that have employees who work remotely, on rotating shifts and in high-risk positions, such as mining and oil and gas. Their customers are mostly in the manufacturing, transportation, utilities and logistics industries (truck drivers, crane operators, freight yards, shipping facilities and railway facilities).
In general, fatigue technology provides a deterrent effect, Desruisseaux says. This is particularly relevant today as many people do jobs on the side. A worker with a regular job may still be driving for Uber after they leave a site and go home. However, a fatigue technology at their regular job will act as a deterrent for these workers.
“Just the fact that I know I have to take these tests every day, I’m going to get a better sleep every night because I don’t want to go outside my range,” he says.
Moreover, when a work site introduces daily fatigue testing, each worker’s confidence in their own safety around their co-workers is increased.
“It makes every individual more confident when they’re operating in and around someone who might be in that safety-sensitive position. If you think about a construction site and someone is operating a very dangerous piece of equipment, you’re a lot more comfortable doing that early in the morning, just knowing the operator is not fatigued right now,” Desruisseaux says.
Another technology developed in recent years to address the hazard of fatigue in the workplace is telematics. These systems combine various technologies, including cameras and sensors, to collect data on driver behaviour. They can also detect other possible effects of fatigue, such as erratic steering and braking. Cameras in the cab can monitor changes in head and eye movements to detect signs of fatigue.
Another fatigue-detecting technology uses electroencephalography (EEG) monitoring to assess fatigue and prevent micro-sleeps, a period of sleep that lasts from a few to several seconds. Sensors embedded in a band in the cap or hardhat of a driver or equipment operator measure brain waves to assess the worker’s ability to resist sleep. As the risk of a micro-sleep approaches, the system sends an alert to the worker, who can then act to increase alertness and avoid an incident. Managers can monitor a company’s vehicle fleet and get real-time information on their drivers’ alertness levels. This technology is used in the trucking, passenger transport and mining industries.
IS IT NECESSARY?
Fatigue is a major hazard at every high-risk workplace, so managers at these sites should probably consider whether fatigue technology would be advantageous at their sites. Such sites would include not just dangerous industries, such as material transport or oil and gas, but also sites that employ workers on irregular, extended shifts and remote workers.
One way of determining whether or not fatigue is a problem among workers is to analyze safety incident data already collected, Desruisseaux says. What factors contributed to these incidents and how many incidents seem to have been the result of fatigue? What is the percentage of incidents caused by fatigue?
The purpose of fatigue technology is not to help safety managers determine whether they have a fatigue problem but rather to help them understand the extent of the problem, Trotter says.
“Almost every industrial organization is dealing with fatigue. Most safety managers and most industrial workers are well aware that it’s an issue. We’ll sit and talk to industrial workers and the first thing they’ll say is, ‘Of course, I’m fatigued. I’m working crazy hours; I’m working in the middle of the night,’” he says.
“This technology is about quantifying the problem, so a safety manager can know how fatigued is my workforce? It’s about how safety managers measure it. Then they can ask what are the things they can do to improve that? How do they deal with it and make changes? And then they measure it again. That’s very much what our technology is used for.”
A central consideration in selecting the technology that is most appropriate for a workplace is worker acceptance: Will the workers use it? It’s important to take into account the privacy of the individual and the jurisdiction’s regulations. This issue is particularly important with wearables or any kind of behaviour-monitoring technology. Such technologies may be less acceptable in unionized workplaces. In some workplaces, there may be limits on what information managers can look at.
It may not be possible, for example, for a manager to check in with an app and see an individual’s fatigue level, Trotter says.
“It will depend very much on any agreement that the employer has with their workers and on the jurisdiction they’re in. In some jurisdictions, the employer would not be allowed to see that data so they would see randomized data,” he says.
“So, they would be able to say, I’ve got 100 workers on shift. I can see that 10 of them are in a highly fatigued state. That’s when you’re having a safety briefing. You would bring up the data and say I don’t know who those 10 fatigued individuals are, but all of you can look on the app on your phone and see if it’s you. And then we can have a discussion about how we can mitigate that fatigue.”
Fatigue has always been a big problem, Adamietz says. But today, it is greatly compounded by the changing nature of work.
“With the expanding gig economy, people are working many jobs. They’ll drive you to the airport in the morning or they may deliver groceries after work. So, fatigue, the concepts of absenteeism and ‘presenteeism’ are more and more on the minds of [employers],” he says. “What drives the decision to explore fatigue awareness technologies is the risk factor inside the environment. If it’s just mainly office workers, then your risk factor is mistake prevention, in calculations or work product. Inside more blue-collar settings, your risk factor is injury or fatality.”
Linda Johnson is a freelance journalist who has been writing for COS for eight years.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of COS.
Identification and prevention
How can an employer identify fatigue?
Fatigue is more than feeling drowsy or overworked. Below are some signs or symptoms to look for:
excessive yawning or falling asleep
inability to concentrate
changes in behaviour, such as lateness or absenteeism from work.
How can an employer prevent fatigue?
An employer can prevent fatigue by recognizing the factors that could contribute to and increase the risk of fatigue. These may include:
work schedules, such as early starts or late finishes
job demands, such as repetitious work or continued physical effort
sleep conditions, such as length, quality and time since sleeping
environmental conditions, such as exposure to heat, cold or noisy workplaces
non-work-related factors such as lifestyle or family responsibilities.