Some of the worst environmental and travel disasters of the past few decades have been ascribed at least partly to sleep deprivation in the workplace, and its subsequent wider impact in different arenas. This is according to Dr Denis Cronson, who was presenting a seminar on Fighting Workplace Fatigue at this year’s official A-OSH EXPO, Africa’s leading occupational safety and health exhibition, which is now in its seventh year and ran for three days over 30 and 31 May and 1 June.
Dr Cronson was speaking at one of the free-to-attend NOSHEBO Seminar Theatre sessions at the expo, sponsored by BBF Safety Group. He mentioned some deadly global examples in which tremendous environmental damage or loss of life was caused by sleep deprivation in the workplace. These included the Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska in 1989, the second-largest oil spill in American history; the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine in 1986, said by some to be the worst nuclear disaster in history; a train disaster in Canada in 2001, when two Canadian National trains crashed into each other, spilling 3 000 gallons of diesel, and the deadly crash of Air France Flight 447 in 2009, which killed all 228 people on board.
In the Exxon Valdez oil spill, employees had been working up to 14-hour shifts and a tired third mate had fallen asleep at the wheel. In the Chernobyl disaster, the power plant exploded after engineers had worked 13 hours or more. In the Canadian National train disaster, two crewmen on one of the freight trains suffered from sleep apnoea that caused chronic sleeplessness and resultant fatigue. In the Air France disaster, the official report concluded that the pilot had had only had one hour of sleep the night before, and was taking a nap when the plane collided with a tropical storm.
These are admittedly extreme examples but they show without a doubt how deadly sleep deprivation in the workplace can be – and not only for the person who is sleep deprived. We can see, therefore, why combatting fatigue in the workplace is such an important concern. Dr Cronson says, “Fighting fatigue in the workplace is a contemporary issue in workplaces around the country. An acute and ongoing state of tiredness leads to mental and physical exhaustion and prevents people from functioning within normal boundaries. By law, employers have an obligation to establish the risk that fatigue that represents; try to eliminate or reduce fatigue in the workplace, and provide a work place that is safe and without risk to the health of the employees. It is a part of basic health and safety conditions.”
Key contributing factors to fatigue at work
Dr Cronson explains that key contributing factors to fatigue at work include (but are not limited to) the scheduling of the times the employee is required to work; the duration of the working time, including the rotation of shifts; mental and physical exhaustion; environmental factors such as heat cold or excessive vibration, and individual factors that come into play from the person’s lifestyle, such as the responsibilities of children and the employee’s general fitness, diet, home and sleeping conditions.
He clarifies, “So we have work and non-work related fatigue, which all impact on work-related issues and, taken to extreme, can lead to disasters. We know that excessive alcohol consumption leads to performance impairment, significantly slowing reaction time and distorting vision. It has been shown that, at the legal blood alcohol limit of 0,05 g of alcohol per 100 ml, an individual is four times more likely to be in an accident. It has further been proven that when an individual has been awake for 17 hours, this is like the equivalent of having imbibed alcohol to the legal limit. When you have been awake for 20 hours – just another three hours more – it is as though you are at double the legal limit. Fatigue really reduces your ability to concentrate, make decisions, recognise risks and communicate effectively – it really raises the risk of accidents.”
Dr Cronson says it is important to follow a practical risk management approach, in which the hazards need to be assessed and the risks managed. “Consultation is critically important in the workplace, among employers, employees and health and safety representatives and committees. This consultation process becomes especially important in the case of a near miss. A risk assessment needs to show where employees are at risk of becoming impaired by fatigue, who they are and how many of them, how often this could happen and the degree of harm that would result. A risk management schedule needs to be set in place, hazards identified and risks assessed. Thereafter risk control processes can be set up.”
Setting up fatigue management plans
He outlined a number of practical considerations in setting up fatigue management plans in the workplace, concluding that: “The implementation of a fatigue management plan in the workplace has the potential to reduce employee fatigue or its causes, reduce the further likelihood of fatigue occurring in the work place, and counteract the effects of fatigue when it does occur. Fatigue management systems need to identify the hazards of fatigue, assess the risks and implement control measures, and monitor and review the effectiveness of the fatigue management plan.”
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