7 workplace strategies for managing employee fatigue

Jun 25, 2019

8 workplace strategies for managing employee fatigueSleep-related fatigue has reached epidemic proportions in Canada, says Mike Harnett, President of Solaris Fatigue Management.* “Three quarters of the population are not getting the minimum required amount of sleep. Employees are showing up for work cognitively or physically unable to do the job to the extent that you expect.” 

This may translate directly into injuries and incidents. “The reality is that what gets labelled human error is often a consequence of fatigue,” says Mike. “If you’ve been awake for 17 hours straight, you have an impairment equivalent to .05% blood alcohol content. If you’re awake for 20 hours, you’re at .08%.”

While we may not be able to eliminate fatigue, implementing a fatigue management system or plan can help reduce the related risks. Mike offers seven strategies for managing employee fatigue.
  1. Educate senior leadership and managers on the cost and consequences of employee fatigue and build a strong business case. Management may not have considered that office workers face fewer fatigue-related hazards than someone on the factory floor, and may not correlate fatigue with organizational performance and employee safety. Here’s a key statistic for your business case: research shows 13% of workplace injuries can be attributed to fatigue.** Work with senior leaders to establish targets and metrics for managing fatigue.
  2. Determine whether your workplace has a fatigue problem by conducting an employee survey. If your workplace has a culture in which employees may not feel comfortable talking about their experience with fatigue, invite them to respond anonymously.
If you determine fatigue is a concern, consider the following steps.
  1. Review your safety management systems through a fatigue lens and start incorporating fatigue into your workplace’s health and safety policies and procedures. For instance, set out rules and responsibilities for supervisors for managing someone who is tired. Are they allowed to let an employee have a nap? Do they have the authority and means to temporarily assign the employee to a task posing less risk? What is the process when someone consistently shows up fatigue impaired?
  2. Review your hazard assessments through the same lens. Start with high-risk tasks. How much risk could fatigue add and how could you mitigate it?
  3. Consider the work schedule from a hazard or fatigue perspective, especially if your workplace has shift assignments. “For example,” says Mike, “early morning activities (before 6 a.m.) are high risk because these workers are at ‘the window of circadian low’ — the worst possible time cognitively and physically for us to be functioning because it’s when our bodies are programmed for optimal sleep.” Implement strategies to offset or mitigate the risks, such as moving critical tasks away from the hours between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., or double-checking any work performed at that time. 
  4. Screen employees for sleep disorders and incorporate solutions into wellness and benefits programs. “One in four Canadians are at a high risk for obstructive sleep apnea, which can be a killer. If your screening identifies people at high risk for sleep apnea, arrange for proper diagnosis and treatment.” Also, consider offering benefits that promote quality sleep, such as blackout drapes, white noise devices and CPAP machines — the preferred treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. 
  5. Provide employees with strategies that improve sleep and alertness, such as what foods to eat on nightshift, when is the best time to exercise, how to manage family and social schedules, etc. “Share information on how to achieve good sleep, how to manage fatigue, and how to live a shiftwork lifestyle. Shiftwork isn’t about a schedule, shiftwork is a lifestyle and they need to adapt to accommodate that lifestyle,” says Mike.


How WSPS can help

Our ergonomic specialists — part of WSPS’ team of technical consultants — can help your workplace explore options for managing fatigue and reducing the risk of fatigue-related incidents. Examples include cognitive demands analysis, shift schedule design, ergonomic assessments to reduce musculoskeletal loading fatigue and more.
    
* Solaris Fatigue Management works with human factors and fatigue management specialists to provide a comprehensive suite of fatigue related services. Mike Harnett is a frequent speaker at symposia and conferences, including WSPS’ Partners in Prevention 2019 Health & Safety Conference & Trade Show. Find out more about Solaris Fatigue Management.

** Source: National Fatigue Reports web page of the U.S. National Safety Council, www.nsc.org/work-safety/safety-topics/fatigue/survey-report.