truckThe first “Key Issue Roundtable” of ASSE’s Safety 2013 takes place Tuesday morning on the subject of fatigue. Specifically, “Fatigue in Transportation: Latest in Regulations & Research.” The “town hall” type of open forum/speak your mind is sponsored by ASSE’sTransportation Practice Specialty.

Fatigue is a safety hazard, especially in the transportation sector, with truck drivers, express delivery service drivers, long-distance bus drivers, and of course airline pilots. Several bus crashes in recent years have seen fatigue as a contributing factor.

Hours of duty regulations are highly debated in transportation circles, and also in healthcare and the hours worked by nurses, physicians, and interns.

Trucking companies soon must comply with a new set of regulations issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) further limiting the time a driver can spend behind the wheel.

Beginning July 1, drivers will be able to drive 12 fewer hours per week and will be required to take regular 34-hour rest periods that include pre-dawn hours of two straight days, under the rule.

This restriction is opposed by trucking companies because drivers are more productive when the roads are empty. Companies say the regulations impede the industry’s flexibility, which has long given it an advantage over other shipping modes.

The Truckload Carriers Association claims the new rules will lead to an estimated four-to-six-percent drop in productivity.

Other related issues brought to the table by the trucking industry: the new limits make worse an existing shortage of truckers linked to rising fuel costs, the retirement of a generation of truckers, and an exodus of drivers to construction jobs and other more lucrative work.

An FMCSA spokesman said only that “the rule’s focus is on safety.”

The regulations were published back in December of 2011 and technically took effect in February last year. Carriers were given until July to comply with the rule, which will be enforced during millions of random road inspections conducted each year.

Drivers found to have exceeded the maximum driving limits would be taken off the road and their company subject to fines.

The rule reduced the maximum number of hours a truck driver can work from 82 hours a week to 70 hours, and mandates the 34-hour “restart” requirements. But the daily driving limit remains at 11 hours, despite a challenge from safety groups to lower it to ten hours.

Truck crash fatalities have risen in recent years. Drivers are paid by the mile, rather than by the hour, creating an incentive for them to work long hours. The turnover rate from year to year is roughly 98 percent, and the life expectancy for a trucker is 61 years, well below the national average.

Both a safety coalition and the carriers association have filed lawsuits with a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., to challenge the new hours of duty rules. The court, known as the D.C. Circuit, heard arguments on both cases earlier this spring and is considering the suits together. The court is under no obligation to rule on the matter before enforcement of the regulations begins.

The House Transportation Subcommittee on Highways and Transit held hearings last week on the potential impacts of the rule. Representatives from FMCSA, the American Trucking Association and the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance are among those that testified.

Here is information on fatigue applicable for any safety professional to use, courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety:

What is fatigue?

Fatigue is the state of feeling very tired, weary or sleepy resulting from insufficient sleep, prolonged mental or physical work, or extended periods of stress or anxiety. Boring or repetitive tasks can intensify feelings of fatigue.

Acute fatigue results from short-term sleep loss or from short periods of heavy physical or mental work.

Chronic fatigue syndrome is the constant, severe state of tiredness that is not relieved by rest. The symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome are similar to the flu, last longer than six months and interfere with certain activities. The exact cause of this syndrome is still unknown.

Is fatigue a workplace issue?

Fatigue levels are not easily measured or quantified; therefore, it is difficult to isolate the effect of fatigue on accident and injury rates.

Some research studies have shown that when workers have slept for less than 5 hours before work or when workers have been awake for more than 16 hours, their chance of making mistakes at work due to fatigue are significantly increased.

Research has shown that the number of hours awake can be similar to blood alcohol levels.  WorkSafeBC reports the following:

  • 17 hours awake is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.05
  • 21 hours awake is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.08 (legal limit in Canada)
  • 24-25 hours awake is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of .10

Fatigue is regarded as having an impact on work performance. Alberta Human Resources and Employment* reports that most accidents occur when people are more likely to want sleep - between midnight and 6 am, and between 1-3 pm. And, indeed, sleep deficit has been linked to large scale events such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.

*From: Alberta Human Resources and Employment. Fatigue, Extended Work Hours, and Safety in the Workplacein Workplace Health and Safety, June 2004, Reformated August 2010

What are the effects of fatigue on work?

Because fatigue cannot be "measured", it is difficult to separate the effects of long working hours or lack of sleep to any changes in accident or injury rates.

However, studies report the effects of fatigue as:

  • reduced decision making ability,
  • reduced ability to do complex planning,
  • reduced communication skills,
  • reduced productivity / performance,
  • reduced attention and vigilance,
  • reduced ability to handle stress on the job,
  • reduced reaction time - both in speed and thought,
  • loss of memory or the ability to recall details,
  • failure to respond to changes in surroundings or information provided,
  • unable to stay awake (e.g., falling asleep while operating machinery or driving a vehicle),
  • increased tendency for risk-taking,
  • increased forgetfulness,
  • increased errors in judgment,
  • increased sick time, absenteeism, rate of turnover,
  • increased medical costs, and
  • increased accident rates.

How much sleep do people need?

It varies, but on average studies say we need at least 7.5 to 8.5 hours every day. Studies have reported that most night workers get about 5 to 7 hours less sleep per week than the day shift. (You can accumulate a sleep "debt", but not a surplus.)

How can a workplace help keep workers "alert"?

  • Fatigue is increased by:
  • dim lighting,
  • limited visual acuity (i.e., due to weather),
  • high temperatures,
  • high noise,
  • high comfort,
  • tasks which must be sustained for long periods of time, and
  • work tasks which are long, repetitive, paced, difficult, boring and monotonous.

Workplaces can help by providing environments which have good lighting, comfortable temperatures, and reasonable noise levels. Work tasks should provide a variety of interest and tasks should change throughout the shift.

If extended hours/overtime are common, remember to consider the time required to commute home, meal preparation, eating, socializing with family, etc. Workplaces may wish to consider providing:

  • on-site accommodations,
  • prepared meals for workers, and
  • facilities where employees can take a nap before they drive home.