Staying Alert About Fatigue

Some time back, an airline pilot was workplace fatigue prevention tipsmaking the familiar approach to Washington’s National Airport. As always, the approach controller handed him off to the airport’s tower controller. While the plane continued to descend, the pilot radioed his position to the tower, and waited for a reply. He didn’t receive one, so he tried again. And again.

Realizing that something was wrong and seeing that the approach and runway were clear of traffic, he landed and taxied to the gate. A short time later, a second flight experienced exactly the same situation, and that pilot also opted to land.

The reason for the silence? The tower controller had simply fallen asleep. After working four overnight shifts in a row — fighting to stay awake during the tedious hours when airline traffic was minimal — fatigue overcame him. Because he was working alone, nobody noticed that he had dozed off as two pilots safely brought 165 passengers and crew members to their destination.

The workers on your jobsite may not be responsible for the lives of hundreds or thousands of passengers during their daily shifts, but they are equally susceptible to fatigue and the potential for danger.

Before you brush sleepy workers aside as a minor problem, consider that fatigue has been a contributing factor in nearly every headline-grabbing industrial accident from the Chernobyl nuclear plant to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. It’s considered to be a major contributor to as many as two of every five commercial vehicle accidents. Whether a worker is landing a 767 or handling a potentially destructive power tool, simple fatigue can have devastating results.

How big a problem?

Because it’s difficult to quantify and measure the degrees of fatigue and their specific impacts on a worker’s ability to perform tasks, it’s tough to find clear statistics about dangers associated with sleepy workers.

The National Safety Council estimates that worker fatigue in the U.S. carries a $136 billion annual price tag. Only about 16 percent of that cost was in the form of actual damage. The rest represented lower worker productivity. While it is difficult to assign dollar figures to productivity, it’s widely accepted that workers who are sleepy cannot perform as effectively as their well-rested counterparts. Worker fatigue is also a contributor to increases in absenteeism and medical costs.

Fatigue takes a toll in many ways. For starters, it reduces a worker’s normal decision-making skills and the ability to plan for complex tasks. A tired worker’s attention span will shrink, causing him or her to be less vigilant about potentially dangerous situations. Even worse, reaction times will lengthen, so it will take longer for the worker to recognize the need for corrective action. At the same time, tired workers will be more likely to take on risks.

The incident at Washington’s airport comes as no surprise. A study several years ago by the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute of the Federal Aviation Administration identified extensive fatigue among the agency’s controllers. Between 60 and 80 percent admitted that they had caught themselves starting to doze off when working early morning or midnight shifts — and a full third admitted to falling asleep while driving to or from work when they were on the midnight shift!

What exactly is fatigue?

We tend to think of a fatigue as simply being tired, but from a medical standpoint, it’s more than that. In the workplace, fatigue occurs when a worker’s ability to react or respond is temporarily reduced because of physical or emotional conditions. It has any number of causes beyond just not getting enough sleep. It can be the result of too much mental or physical work, facing high amounts of anxiety or stress, or the mind-numbing effects of boring tasks, especially when those tasks are repetitive (or intermittent, such as overnight shifts in a control tower).

In addition to being sleepy, symptoms of fatigue include both irritability and giddiness, depression, headaches, muscle pain, and appetite loss. Fatigue may be strong enough to trigger “micro-sleeps,” in which a worker briefly dozes off without realizing it until full consciousness returns.

Some fatigue is short-term, or what doctors call acute. Acute fatigue is usually the result of getting less sleep one night or working especially hard, and the symptoms normally go away after a good night’s sleep or simple relaxation. Chronic fatigue involves many of the same symptoms but isn’t remedied by sleep. It may be caused by an underlying medical condition (including one knows as chronic fatigue syndrome) and may increase an individual’s susceptibility to other illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke.

The role of rhythm

Our bodies are geared to follow 24-hour cycles. Many of our physical functions are managed by these cycles, which are known as circadian rhythms. Everything from digestion to our body temperatures operate on these cycles, which ensure that we’re ready to handle the challenges of our active lives during the daytime, while conserving and renewing our energy as we sleep. As an example, our body temperature tends to be higher during the day and at its lowest while we’re asleep. While these rhythms were initially triggered by sunlight, our bodies now receive cues from the time of day, meals, and interactions with others to guide our cycles.

Although our bodies know what’s best for us, the realities of life and the workplace mean that we frequently have to ignore these natural reminders. That may mean staying up when our bodies are telling us to sleep or waking up to the alarm clock much earlier than we want to, and feeling that we didn’t have enough sleep. At other times, it may involve delaying meals beyond the time at which we are hungry.

In the short term, ignoring these rhythms may make us a little drowsy or a wee bit irritable. But if we continue to ignore the rhythms, our bodies will protest with feelings that can range from strong fatigue to disorientation. If you’ve ever experienced “jet lag,” you’ve had a sense of how that feels.

If we stay on that different time schedule consistently, our bodies will eventually adjust to the new schedule, and it will become our normal pattern. But if those schedules change frequently, as they do for workers on a swing shift, the normal rhythms will have a difficult time keeping up with changes, leading to fatigue. In addition, the changes may interfere with normal sleep and other activities, compounding the problem.

Medical science has not agreed upon exactly how much sleep the average person needs, but most studies conclude that somewhere between seven and eight hours a day is optimal.

Causes and cures

Fatigue can be caused by many factors in the workplace. For example, dim lighting, long shifts, jobs that require many hours of physical activity, high levels of stress and mental activity, excessive noise, and not having enough break time are all factors that can contribute to fatigue.

Some workers may suffer from sleep disorders that cause fatigue during the workday. That can include everything from simple insomnia to a breathing disorder that’s called obstructive sleep apnea. Drinking alcohol or caffeine, or using nicotine, can also negatively impact a person’s quality of sleep.

Just as there are many causes for fatigue, there are no simple answers for addressing it in the workplace. Employers need to use strategies that are based on the specific situations being encountered by their workers.

Employers can reduce fatigue by improving work environments with adequate lighting, comfortable temperatures, and measures to reduce excessive noise. Changing the nature of tasks to avoid repetition may also be beneficial. Shift work schedules should consider normal rhythms, and supervisors should learn to recognize signs of fatigue.

In addition, workplace wellness programs can make workers aware of the benefits of a good night sleep and strategies for obtaining that sleep. They can also call attention to potential problems such as sleep apnea, helping to head off more serious problems.

Most important, employers need to take fatigue seriously, because it’s an actual physical problem and not a lack of character or work ethic, and because it has a significant impact on worker safety and the bottom line. It’s something worthy of serious consideration, whether you’re watching the day shift arrive, or sitting in seat 12B on final approach to Washington National.

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