Understanding the Dangers of Decision Fatigue

Reginald “Reggie” Fields
Safety Advisor

Have you ever had a day off when you woke up in the morning feeling ambitious and confident you were going to accomplish everything you wanted? As you move through the day, you’re tackling one task after another. But as afternoon starts to transition into evening, something is happening. It takes a more effort to think about what you’re doing, and you’ve noticed that you’re starting to make more mistakes. When faced with choices, you start to become a little irritated, and what should be automatic decisions seem difficult.

You’re experiencing what researchers have come to call decision fatigue. It’s the recognition that as we become physically tired, we find it more difficult to make important decisions. In fact, many of us begin to exhibit poor decision-making skills. When you apply that to chores around your home, it’s irritating. But when you apply it to decisions about the safety of workers, it can be downright dangerous.

Decision fatigue isn’t a sign of incompetence or a lack of knowledge. It’s simply the reality that we’re human, and that our brains and bodies have a limited amount of energy. As we use up that energy, we’re not at our best.

A great example of that was the Saturday I was asked to oversee safety for the construction of a portion of a large manufacturing plant. While it represented the classic example of everything that could wrong going wrong, it also provided several situations in which decision fatigue on the part of workers could have led to a tragic situation.

The plant was about two and half hours from home, and I was already tired after having worked a full week. I had been called in to handle safety protection for a group of ironworkers on a single shift for Saturday and Sunday. I arrived at 5:30 a.m., met the ironworkers, and asked for the foreman, only to be told he was working on another jobsite. When I asked who was running the project, they said someone from the ironworker’s main office was coming down to supervise.

Then I met with the owner’s rep to verify what needed to be done, and he asked whether I was working with the day shift or the night shift. When I said I was told there was just a single shift, he said it would take 40 hours to complete what needed to be done, and it had to be completed by Monday. He was also unhappy that we weren’t already working.

I went back to the worksite and discovered that only eight of ten promised ironworkers were there, and several of them had driven several hours to get to the site, so they were already tired. The superintendent had arrived, and I told him the owner’s rep was expecting two crews, although there was only one. The superintendent went off to the find the materials while I started to set up to barricade tape.

As I talked with the ironworkers, I realized none of them had been on the site before and they needed safety guidance about the plant. By the time steel parts were move into the project area, we were already three hours behind schedule, and it started raining heavily. The steel parts were dripping with so much rainwater that we stopped moving parts and started mopping the wet floor, and another hour passed before work could begin.

They needed a “fire watch” for the welders, and they chose a 19-year-old who was new to the trade. I asked him about the fire watch training he had received and was satisfied that he could perform the work. However, with only one worker providing fire watch, welding could take place at only one location.

Work continued for a while, but by the eight-hour mark, I started to see a lot of poor decision-making. The crew was slowing down and inadvertently starting to create trip hazards. They weren’t responding to each other, and they were walking away for long restroom and smoke breaks. The superintendent was frustrated with the lack of progress and refused to provide additional breaks. I pointed out the need for them to refresh and refocus. By the 12-hour mark, they were hanging steel incorrectly. The superintendent moved them to another area of the jobsite to start assembling a mezzanine from metal plates — and I saw they were installing them backwards.

About 16 hours into the day, I went to the owner’s rep and said I was calling a safety timeout. I brought the rep and superintendent together and told them if we didn’t stop working, someone was going to be hurt seriously. We stopped for the day.

The next morning, work resumed, although some of the ironworkers had gone home. After about eight hours, I could see the decision fatigue kicking in. The workers were swearing at each other, they were installing the wrong parts, and some started taking half-hour restroom breaks. The work was slowing down and mistakes were increasingly common. For example, a worker would get up to the second level and realize he forgot the bolt he needed. He’d go back down to get it and forget to bring the washers or leave his wrench behind. I was seeing one bad decision after another.

I reached out to the superintendent and the owner’s rep and said we needed to stop. The workers had completed about 80 percent of the work, and I said we should go ahead and thank these guys and get them to a hotel so they can drive home safely the next morning. That’s what we did.

Anyone who spent time on a construction site or in a manufacturing plant could probably share similar stories about how work progressed after decision fatigue started to overwhelm everyone, and those stories offer additional proof of how being tired has a significant negative effect on both safety and productivity.

So how can safety personnel and supervisors mitigate the effects of decision fatigue? First, you need to think about the factors you can control and those that are outside your control. Then focus on what you can do. As you make your plans for the day, think about the decisions you’ll have to make.

If you find yourself starting to get tired, ask someone for help with key decisions. Show them the situation, explain what you’re thinking, and ask for their advice. Sometimes it can help to just walk away from work for a few minutes for some fresh air. When you come back to the situation, you may see things differently.

Most of all, keep in mind the fact that we’re human and fatigue is going to happen to us. By being aware of your own energy levels and paying attention to signs that others may not be making the best decisions, you may be able to prevent costly mistakes as well as serious injuries.

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