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TT Talk – Fatigue can kill

Workforce fatigue is a topic that has been considered in the context of the COVID pandemic and also more generally in past editions of TT Talk. It however remains and important factor in keeping people safe and equipment and property protected.

One of the fundamental challenges associated with fatigue and stress is that they are not easy to identify, quantify or monitor. Signs of fatigue and stress can include irritability, depression, loss of appetite and an increased susceptibility to illness. Awareness therefore of the symptoms and effects of fatigue becomes critical in managing the related workplace risks.

What is fatigue?
Fatigue is the decline in mental and/or physical performance as a result of prolonged exertion, lack of quality sleep, disruption of the body clock or extended periods of stress or anxiety. Fatigue can be described either as an acute or chronic condition. Acute fatigue, often resulting from short term sleep loss or intense short periods of heavy workload, can easily be reversed by sleep and relaxation. Chronic fatigue syndrome is a more severe state of tiredness that is not immediately relieved by rest.

Fatigue should be of concern to those responsible for managing health, safety and wellbeing in the global supply chain for a number of reasons. Primarily operations may naturally be expected to be performed 24 hours a day, seven days per week, 365 days per year, resulting in the need for shift work and people working unnatural hours. Landside operations, whether road transport, warehousing, ports or terminals will typically involve the use of heavy equipment to handle and move cargo, adding increased risk. Tragically, as seen in numerous cases, fatigue impacts not just the individual concerned, but co-workers and potentially the general public.

The understood effects of fatigue include reduction in decision making ability, poorer communication skills, degraded attention and vigilance, dulled reactions, increased tendency for risk taking and increased errors in judgement. It is not difficult therefore to correlate such effects with risks in the workplace, especially where individuals are working with machinery, moving parts and mobile equipment or needing to react decisively to dynamic situations.

There are a number of known environmental factors which can be assessed and, if required, modified in order to mitigate the associated risks of fatigue. Whilst not an exhaustive list, dim lighting, high temperatures, high levels of comfort, tasks which must be sustained for long periods and tasks which are repetitive, difficult, boring or monotonous can all lead to increased fatigue levels.

Amongst numerous sources with good material to consider, most national health and safety authorities, such as UK HSE, will have compiled valuable information.

Is the answer simply more sleep?
While a simple answer of course, this is not entirely possible for many in this industry; achieving a perfect work life balance is difficult. So how much sleep do we need? Each individual differs, this should not be underestimated, but studies suggest on average somewhere between 7.5 and 8.5 hours sleep per 24 hour period is preferable. This however is affected by age, what levels of energy have been used through the last waking period and a myriad of other factors – so it is not a simple benchmark.

The amount of sleep actually required by an individual will be influenced by several aspects including heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature. Humans naturally follow a biological clock, a cycle of sleep, wakefulness and alertness that is generally aligned with the hours of daylight.

Studies suggest that periods of intense fatigue are usually experienced during the hours where we instinctively require sleep the most, between 23:00 and 06:00. Furthermore, shift workers suffer from sleep deprivation because their sleep schedule typically changes frequently.

For night workers there are other concerns, not least family life, that will typically continue through the periods when they may seek to sleep – school runs, phone calls and appointments. Simply trying to sleep during daylight hours can be problematic; blackout blinds might be a helpful solution.

Mitigating the risks
While identifying the symptoms of fatigue can be challenging, there are a number of practical steps that can be taken by both the organisation and the individual to mitigate the associated risks.

Organisational
• Engage with the entire workforce to increase awareness and provide a broader recognition of this phenomenon. Workforce awareness about fatigue improves the ability to identify individual issues
• Inclusion will be key in effective management to overcome barriers related to individual ‘coping strategies’ and ‘presenteeism’, where employees are unaware of the risks and continue to work
• Implement effective monitoring systems and alerts, involving workforce where possible, particularly seeking to design work shifts in recognition of fatigue risks.

Individual
• Take sleep seriously, develop an understanding of your individual requirements under normal and abnormal conditions and make time for sleep
• Assess your sleeping arrangements; subtle changes, such as blackout blinds, may assist in increasing the quality of sleep you have
• Keep hydrated since this can assist in combatting some effects of fatigue
• Eat small portions of food, particularly during unnatural waking hours; this can improve digestion and preclude drowsiness
• Limit caffeine intake, developing an understanding as to how caffeine effects your body and how long it remains in your bloodstream, including its impact on your ability to sleep
• Maintain a generally healthy lifestyle o the extent possible; regular exercise can assist in fighting the effects of fatigue

Fostering a community recognition and culture relating to fatigue risks can pay dividends; it not only is respectful, but also delivers safety for the individual, co-workers and operations generally.
Source: TT Club

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