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Managing workplace fatigue

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Employers must ensure they are staying on top of employee fatigue in the workplace, according to a recent study.

Naomi Rogers, PhD, from Sydney University’s Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, gave a paper entitled Fatigue Management at the 2006 Sydney Safety Conference, presented by Australian Workplace Exhibitions and Conferences. 

In today’s 24/7 society more and more industries are involved in shift work and extending working hours. This leads to increased numbers of individuals working at all times across the twenty-four hour day, often in a state of sleep debt. On the job performance may be severely impacted by sleep loss, resulting in poor performance, increased risk of errors and accidents and increased working costs. In addition, sleep loss is associated with an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents of motor vehicle accidents on the commute to and from work.

Human fatigue is globally recognised as a significant contributing factor to accidents in a wide range of industries, including the transportation and medical industries. In Australia, and other industrialised countries, fatigue is recognised as an occupational health and safety issue. Australian legislation states that employers have a duty of care for the health and safety of employees in the workplace. Organisations and individual workers that fail to manage human fatigues wisely, increase the risk of accidents and injury, with wide-ranging consequences. Fatigue was a contributing factor in the grounding of the Exxon Valdez, the Chernobyl nuclear explosion and the Selby train crash in the UK.  

In order to minimise sleep loss and associated risks to workers and maximise safety, performance and health fatigue management strategies are essential. Fatigue management may be achieved by via a number of mechanisms, which may differ between companies and industries. 

A number of industries and organisations have instigated a range of fatigue risk management systems. Important aspects of these systems include, but are not limited to, a policy on fatigue and what are acceptable levels of fatigue, and risks associated with fatigue; education for employers and employees regarding fatigue and sleep, both at work and at home/off-duty; assistance with rostering, taking into account shift duration, shift rotation, on duty tasks and time off for sleep; providing resources for sleeping, transport when fatigue hits and support personnel.   

Other issues that need to be included are medical education and screening for sleep disorders and medical disorders that disrupt sleep; use of countermeasures to minimise the effects of sleep loss and lifestyle issues that may impact on or be impacted by sleep loss, including family and social issues.

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