Whether we like it or not, fatigue is a part of our lives, each and every day. We know what it does to our reflexes, our ability to anticipate danger, and what it can do to our decision making. What we don’t really know, however, is what to do about it — especially at the workplace. Is it primarily a personal responsibility, or a company responsibility? Can it be tested reliably? And how much control should a company exert regarding fatigue? Certainly, these questions can be discussed in theory, but hearing what experts are doing in real life to manage fatigue is all the more valuable.
Larry Wilson of SafeStart brought together experts from world-class companies to join him for another round of panel discussions to see how they are tackling a problem that never seems to go away.
First signs of fatigue
Wilson first begins the session by asking the panelists when they personally noticed that fatigue was an issue. Micheal Cooke, Vice President, Social and Environmental Responsibility at Jabil Group, explained that he first realized the detrimental effects of fatigue while working at a chemicals company, with trucks traveling with big, dangerous cargos.
“Some nasty accidents were happening”, he said, “and we lost a bid because we decided to tighten our demands on fatigue management practices — like drivers can only drive so long at once, need to stop and sleep at night, etc. — one of our competitors decided that they could do without all of that, got the bid, but unfortunately had a very tragic accident.”
He shared that the customer ended up coming back to them and was even willing to pay more for their services after that. “It sadly took a fatality for the customer to realize it wasn’t just about costs,” Cooke said.
Alex Carnvelae, President of Dynacast, came about this realization differently. “When we went to a 12 hour shift,” Carnvelae said, “some people were really excited because they would get a seven-day period off. But anecdotally, I felt we weren’t as sharp, so I started putting some data to it, and looked at a few metrics.”
He shared that the results of his inquiry were that at the end of the shift, the beginning of the shift, and the last one or two days of a four-day cycle incidents were elevated… which started to point towards fatigue. “It was not a popular decision” he said, “but eventually I made the decision to go back to the 8 hour shifts.”
Arun Subramanian, Associate VP HSE at Coromandel International Limited, explained that he began noticing fatigue in a number of different dimensions.
“One thing that is very common in the manufacturing industry,” he said, “is shift worker fatigue.” He shared that there is also a problem on the project side where you have 24/7 work in the mix, but there “you have a floating population, and can manage it a little better.”
As far as the night shift goes, he admitted they have yet to find a long lasting solution to the disruption of workers' circadian rhythms, “different plants have different shifts — but they are all eight hours,” Subramanian said, similar to Carnvelae’s findings.
Hector Salazar, Director of EHS at Dragados Canada Ltd., on the other hand, told Larry Wilson that “in the oil and gas industry and construction — 12 hours a day, six days a week is what normally happens.”
Salazar explained that workers coming to these remote locations to work are aware and are mentally prepared for these long shifts.
Dr. Praveena Dorathi, Health Safety Security & Environment Head at JLL West Asia, said because her workforce is decentralized, and spread over different client sites, there are some sites operating 24/7 and others not. “We do have shift operations, on a rotational basis,” she said. “One person won't be working night shifts all year, not even throughout the month.” She added that they give their employees notice in advance of the rotation, so that they can adapt to the change in shift and their circadian rhythms.
“So it sounds like you have all moved away from people working permanent shifts,” Wilson said. He said he thinks this is a good thing from a mental health and fairness point of view. “In my opinion, fatigue management is mostly a personal thing. Only you really know how tired you are, and only you know why. So sometimes it’s better to hide your fatigue if you haven’t managed your sleep, which makes it difficult for a supervisor to notice.”
He went on to tell a funny story about one of his first jobs — cutting rugs for a big department store on the weekends. But he concluded that from a safe workplace perspective, the company also needs to be doing what it can do. But other than rotating shift work — what can a company do?
“In the construction industry,” Salazar said, “it's very important that when you have workers working 12 hours a day, you, number one, break down their activities so they feel like they are accomplishing something.” He elaborated that when you go home at the end of a shift or the end of the week and feel like you have accomplished something, you’re better able to relax and have some peace of mind so that you can enjoy your time off.
Subramanian shared that they have a system in which field operators can be rotated as panel operators, so that the work doesn't get too repetitive. They conduct knowledge-sharing sessions with the night-shift workers to keep alertness, but, he said “it doesn't compensate for a loss of sleep.”
Dorathi agrees with Subramanian: “Apart from ensuring shift work doesn’t become repetitive, we also shuffle workers and tasks because complacency sets in when a job is continually being repeated.”
Ed Stephens, Global HSE/SA Audit, Assurance & Senior Lead Investigator at ABB Robotics and Discrete Automation, addressed fatigue differently depending on the type of worker. “In the workforce you have office personnel, workers on the shop floor, and service personnel,” he said, “the way you think about fatigue, productivity, quality, safety, has to address those categories differently.”
He further explained that for office personnel, the biggest challenge is that they are often sitting all day without getting the chance to get up and move their bodies. “By doing that,” he said, “we are not giving our bodies the resources it needs to process and manage stress correctly.” For the people on the shop floor who are always moving around and burning calories, Stephens believes the biggest challenge is sleep, and making sure they are actually decompressing and resting when they go home. Stephens added that the service group is a mix of the previous two.
Repetitive stress fatigue
The panelists, whether knowingly or not, provided a smooth segue way into the next aspect of fatigue Wilson was hoping to talk about — repetitive stress fatigue.
“One focus is on office work… , continually sitting at a desk, especially if you don't have an ergonomic work table,” Subramanian said.
Anthony Panepinto, Senior Director Health, Safety, and Environment Affairs at Proctor & Gamble, shared that at P&G they focused greatly on economics during the ’80s.
“Same goes for the maintenance team who have to work on the shop floor,” he said, “certain roles are difficult in nature, working continuously in the same position.” He said at a previous workplace they tried to standardize as many of these activities as possible, working with a physiotherapist, office administration, safety people, etc. But, “no matter what standardization you have, you will always find people working haphazardly… you have a trolley provided for them, and they don't use it, and you don't find supervisors enforcing it.”
Wilson made a comment about a workplace where he got a big job that really didn’t have any high risk operations, but… the workers pulled carts all day. Their No. 1 recordable injury was shoulder injuries, and it seemed like the supervisors didn't even notice anymore.
“But all the employees know that they should push the cart. And obviously they know when their shoulder starts to hurt. So it’s not easy. And it’s not fair to throw it all on the supervisors,” Wilson said.
Salazar, who recently became acquainted with repetitive stress after moving to Canada and having to shovel snow off his deck, also has experience with acute fatigue on big project sites.
“The key is to have extra man power,” he said. In other words, have at least 5 percent more people than you need, so that when people are taking rests or can’t work there are others to pick up their slack. He also shares that providing breaks, food and tea, or cold isotonic drinks is something the workers really appreciate.
All the panelists agreed that having a place for workers to take a rest or nap while on break is a good idea. Carnvelae said that one of the best things they did while he was working at Etex was making investments into locker rooms and break facilities.
Throughout the panels the notion emerged that fatigue is now more multidimensional. This was echoed by Cooke, who said “fatigue has been talked about a lot but it's just that the context of fatigue is a bit wider now because it includes mental fatigue.”
Panepinto said that, especially throughout Covid, they learned the importance of looking candidly at internal stressors. “We asked, ‘what does it mean to give an employee their perfect day?’ where they’re on their game, they’re focused, they’re not complacent. We as leaders can have conversations to find out what’s motivating them every day. Everyone has a mental health state that varies every day… we need to raise the awareness that it's okay to come and talk about that and instruct leaders on how to have those conversations in a humble and empathic way.”
So yes — fatigue is inescapable. But there are lots of things that can be done to help combat it at the workplace, and leadership plays an important part in helping to reduce fatigue. But realistically, only we know how tired we are, and in those situations we need to do something about it, before we end up making a minor or costly mistake. We can't always get more sleep, but we can do some brisk exercise or stretch, have a coffee or tea or take a quick break and close your eyes for 10-15 minutes – just not while you’re driving.