It is no secret that shift work is often associated with work fatigue and other health and safety issues.

Many of the 1.4 million shift workers in Australia experience impaired alertness due to lack of sleep and disruption of the normal body clock. A new study into behaviours predicting fatigue of shift workers will be conducted by The Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Alertness, Safety and Productivity, together with the Sleep Health Foundation. The two organisations are partnering with an Australian tech company called Seeing Machines, to monitor and study 20 shift workers as they drive to and from work in an instrumented car.

The research hopes to aid in finding a solution for the workplace fatigue problem by examining sleep, fatigue and brain changes in a group of nurses and medical staff who undertake shift work.

The results of the study will be used to test new work schedules, develop smarter lighting systems that will improve alertness among shift workers, and improve drowsiness detection technology.

So, in the interim, what can be done to combat worker fatigue, and when may an employer be liable for a fatigue related accident? We investigate.

Fatigue is mental or physical exhaustion that stops you from being able to function normally. It is what you experience when you feel constantly tired, but differs from feeling drowsy, or sleepy after a busy day.

The symptoms of fatigue include:

  • Headaches, dizziness, blurry vision;
  • Slow reflexes and reactions, poor concentration;
  • Feeling irritable, moody and short tempered;
  • Aching, weak muscles;
  • Feeling tired all over or sleepy;
  • Micro-sleeps
Given the above symptoms it is no wonder that fatigue is a workplace health and safety risk. Fatigue not only affects shift workers but also those who work long or irregular hours.

Research shows:

  • It only takes one week of poor quality or restricted sleep to induce performance impairment equivalent to having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.1 (double the legal limit);
  • 30% of serious accidents are directly related to fatigue;
  • Excessive sleepy or fatigued workers are 70% more likely to be involved in industrial accidents than alert, well rested individuals.

So what can be done to eliminate or minimise the risk of suffering from work fatigue?

While fatigue management is a shared responsibility between employers and employees, it is employers who are responsible for using a risk management approach to manage work fatigue.

Employers can manage fatigue by:

  • Limiting overtime to 4 hours for 8 hour shifts and 2 hours for 10 hour shifts;
  • Limiting total hours per week to 55;
  • Limiting the number of consecutive night shifts to 4;
  • Ending night shifts by 8am;
  • Ensuring there is a minimum of 12 hours between consecutive shifts;
  • Ensuring the roster allows for at least two full nights of sleep after the last night shift;
  • Having a room for workers to sleep before commuting home;
  • Minimising early morning starts before 6am;
  • Avoiding more than 5 consecutive early morning starts;
  • Avoiding safety critical tasks during the early hours of the morning (3am-5am)
If an employer fails to adequately manage fatigue and an employee is injured then that employee may be able to bring a claim for negligence against their employer.

Employees too can do their part to reduce the likelihood of suffering from fatigue. For example:
  • For night shift workers:
    • Don’t eat after 3am;
    • Avoid large meals 1-2 hours before sleeping;
    • Avoid high energy (high fat), high carbohydrate meals during a night shift
    • Have an afternoon nap before night shift;
    • Avoid caffeine after midnight
  • Plan your social activities to ensure you get sufficient sleep before starting work;
  • If you perform a second job ensure you are able to get adequate sleep in relation to both jobs

So while employers have a duty to manage work fatigue, employees too can do their part in preventing fatigue.

Worker fatigue costs Australia over $5 billion in lost productivity, causes 10,000 serious workplace injuries and causes more than 25,000 serious injuries from road accidents. It is imperative then that worker fatigue be managed properly and effectively.

Research is also currently being undertaken in assessing the alertness of 20 nurses and medical staff during work shifts to come up with ways to improve alertness and minimise risks of road and workplace accidents. This should come as welcome news for the 1.4 million Australian shift workers!

If you have suffered an injury at work and think you are entitled to make a claim, check out our workers compensation page for more information on your rights.

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