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We're all exhausted. Here's what workplaces can do about it

Employee fatigue is at an all-time high. Since 2020, staff shortages, higher workloads and teleworking, have dramatically altered our work and home lives, pushing many of us to the point of exhaustion. But even before the pandemic, fatigue was a growing workplace concern due to increasing physical and cognitive demands on employees, says WSPS Consultant Julia Lok.

When people are fatigued, they have greater difficulty paying attention, concentrating, communicating, and anticipating risks. That's a recipe for disaster. "A worker's ability to follow safety instructions when carrying out a task can be impacted." Incidents and injuries, including musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), can happen more easily when workers are fatigued.

The best way to manage workplace fatigue is to optimize those workplace factors that play a role, including job demands, job design, shiftwork, ventilation, and more. There are various ways to do this.

Implementing a fatigue risk management system (FRMS)

Julia suggests that any workplace operating 24/7 will benefit from a full FRMS. It’s a data-driven means of monitoring and managing fatigue-related safety risks, and is often applied in aviation, nuclear and rail industries.

"An FRMS could fit into an existing health and safety management system framework, and follow a process similar to that outlined in CSA Z1002 - Hazard identification and elimination and risk management and control."

Elements of an FRMS include:

  • collecting info to identify and assess risks of fatigue. "Engage all stakeholders - workers, joint health and safety committee, HR, supervisors - to help determine where fatigue is contributing to or could contribute to injuries."
  • developing controls. Bring in ergonomists, hygienists and engineers. "Can we safeguard machines so that people won't get hurt when they are fatigued? Can we ensure there is enough fresh air in the area to maintain alertness?"
  • developing an employee fatigue reporting system.
  • conducting fatigue incident investigations.
  • training and education for supervisors and employees.
  • monitoring and taking corrective actions for continual improvement.

Reducing fatigue in smaller and mid-sized businesses

Fatigue is a hazard that all firms need to be aware of, says Julia, but they may not require a full FRMS. "Instead, make it part of the business' hazard control program or a subset of that program."

Many of the workplace factors that affect fatigue are related to ergonomics - preventing injuries by ensuring the task or workstation fits employee capabilities and limitations. "So having a sound ergonomics program can go a long way to eliminate risks associated with fatigue," says Julia.

Ergonomic factors that play a role in fatigue include:

  • job/task design. Carrying out high demand tasks requiring heavy physical activity over a long period of time can produce fatigue, as can boring and monotonous jobs. "Change it up," advises Julia.
  • shiftwork. This can affect circadian rhythms and alertness. For instance, don't schedule tasks at times of decreased alertness (end of shift, early afternoon, and early hours of the morning). Using bright light during night shifts increases alertness and performance, but can have adverse health effects. These effects can be avoided by blocking light of wavelengths shorter than 480 nm.
  • environment. "Poor lighting, inadequate ventilation, poor workstation design, noise levels and chemical exposure can all increase fatigue and create greater a risk of injury," says Julia.
  • Rest. To enhance alertness, set reasonable performance expectations, provide adequate breaks, schedule micro-breaks between meetings, reduce the frequency and duration of meetings, accommodate increased caregiving responsibilities, and where possible enable employees to align work schedules with their natural energy and attention levels.
  • Employee education. Create awareness by discussing:
    • the hazards of working while fatigued.
    • the importance of sleep (quantity and quality).
    • the basics of sleep physiology and circadian rhythms.
    • how to recognize fatigue and what to do about it.

How WSPS can help

Our ergonomic specialists 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.

Check out these additional resources:

The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.