How and Why Fatigue Increases Safety Risks

fatigue safety risks

Fatigue decreases productivity and increases the risk of workplace accidents by affecting a worker’s ability to think clearly, to the point that they are unaware of their own impairment.

Mental or physical exhaustion also reduces the ability to recognise and assess risks and inhibits co-ordination, reaction times and normal function, according to WorkCover Queensland.

They say that staying awake for 17 hours is equivalent to having a blood alcohol level of 0.05%, while being awake for 21 hours has the same effect as a blood alcohol level of 0.1%.

This is particularly concerning when fatigued people are performing tasks where the consequence of an error would be very serious, such as operating machinery, working at heights, performing electrical work and working with flammable or dangerous substances.

What work increases fatigue?

Adequate sleep is the most important way to prevent and counter-act fatigue.  Adults typically require seven to eight hours daily of deep, uninterrupted sleep.

Poor quality sleep, being awake for long periods and body clock disruption all contribute to fatigue, as do health and emotional issues.

According to Better Health Victoria, studies have found that 50 to 80 per cent of fatigue cases are predominantly due to psychological factors, such as stress.

 Work schedules and job demands can also have a significant effect on sleep, such as:

  • Shift work and overtime which doesn’t allow for adequate rests between shifts.
  • Night shifts which disrupt a worker’s body clock.
  • Work which is high pressure, requires concentrating for long periods, sustained physical effort or repetitive actions.
  • Harsh or uncomfortable work conditions causing workers to tire more quickly.

Shift workers, night workers, FIFO and DIDO workers, seasonal workers and on-call or call-back workers are at a greater risk of fatigue.

How to manage fatigue

Managers should take into consideration fatigue when designing rosters or setting company policies regarding overtime and shift work.

Ensuring adequate rest time for workers between shifts will reduce the risk of fatigue, while scheduling critical tasks for the daytime (but not the afternoon slump between 2-4pm) will have a positive impact on safety.

Job-rotation to reduce mental and physical exhaustion from tasks and providing adequate break rooms with facilities and comfortable conditions can also reduce fatigue.

Workers can also be encouraged to adopt a variety of different strategies to fight fatigue by maintaining adequate hydration levels and improving their diet, sleeping habits, lifestyle and psychological wellbeing.

These include:

  • Drinking adequate healthy fluids – including eliminating energy drinks which have been banned on some construction sites, reducing or cutting out caffeine – particularly before sleeping, not skipping meals, maintaining a healthy diet and eating plenty of iron-rich foods.
  • Going to bed and getting up at the same time, avoiding daytime naps and having a warm bath and shower.
  • Quitting smoking as it leads to lower energy levels and fatigue for a number of reasons, including reduced oxygen levels in the blood.
  • Increasing physical activity which can improve sleep as well as having positive physical and mental effects.
  • Avoiding abuse of alcohol or recreational drugs which also contribute to fatigue and have been found to be a particular problem in the construction industry.
  • Reducing stress through relaxing activities, talking to a professional about ongoing problems or issues, and taking time out.

Common effects of fatigue:

  • Lack of concentration
  • Impaired recollection of timing and events
  • Irritability
  • Poor judgement
  • Reduced capacity for communicating with others
  • Reduced hand-eye coordination
  • Reduced visual perception
  • Reduced vigilance
  • Reduced capacity to judge risk
  • Slower reaction times
  • Micro sleeps
  • Heart disease and high blood pressure
  • Lower fertility
  • Poor mental health
  • Stomach disorders

More information can be found in the Safe Work Australia Guide for Managing the Risk of Fatigue at Work.


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