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Fatigue management in the mining industry

Friday, September 19, 2014 by Rhonda Locke

This is the third in a series examining the impact and causes of fatigue in a number of high profile industries. In this blog we look at fatigue in mining and the inherent dangers for individuals working in the sector.

The mining industry has had an appalling safety record over the past hundred or more years with large scale accidents causing multiple fatalities – especially in underground mining. Many countries have worked very hard to improve their safety record and reduce the number and severity of accidents, but still there are many deaths worldwide each year. China alone has recorded thousands of deaths each year. In 2013, the Chinese government reported 589 mining accidents in their country, leaving 1049 people dead or missing and that number was acknowledged as a reduction of 24% from the prior year.

SAFE Work Australia data has revealed 112 Australians have been killed at work so far this year with approximately 10% occurring in the mining industry. This number is relatively low in comparison to the transport/postal/warehousing, agricultural and construction sectors, some of which we’ll examine in future blogs. But regardless of the statistical dangers within the industry, jobs within the mining sector are still highly sought after. An estimated 130,000 people work in mining in Australia and of course these numbers are low in comparison with China, Africa, Latin American and North America.

The dangers of a long commute

While the financial benefits may be attractive, the remoteness of mining operations results in a number of issues. It is not uncommon for workers to Fly In Fly Out (FIFO) but also very commonly in Australia they will commute by car over long distances or Drive In Drive Out (DIDO), even though mine sites are often based near small townships.  

There are a number of reasons workers would choose to be a DIDO employee. A lack of suitable accommodation close to mines makes available properties scarce. Rents therefore become unaffordable for all but the most senior employees of the mines. Additionally there are significant difficulties for men and women with young families. Shift work makes sleep during the day unrealistic when you have noisy children running about the house. Also, partners and families of mine employees would often prefer to live in larger and better connected cities, which mean the commute time for employees can be considerable.

One of the busiest mining regions in Australia is in the coal mine areas of central Queensland in the Bowen Basin. It is not uncommon for employees in many of these mine sites to work at least 4 consecutive 12-hour shifts. When they finish their rotation they want to get straight in their car and drive home. This can be at least a 300 kilometre road trip; a long distance when a person is already suffering fatigue.

Some companies have policies discouraging employees from driving so soon after finishing a shift, but if they transport them out of the area using a bus or some other company vehicle; they can’t enforce their policies after they have technically finished work, even if they want to. This then creates the same difficult scenario where drivers who are not acting in a professional capacity are not regulated. There is no law against non-professionals driving while tired to the point of being drowsy, even though statistics and common sense say it is not a good idea.

Drowsy driving compared to drunk driving

Until the introduction of the roadside Random Breath Test (RBT) to measure Blood Alcohol Concentration, there was no method to determine exactly how much a person had been affected by alcohol. It was therefore difficult to record drivers as legally drunk. Similarly, it has been historically impossible to determine at a road side the fatigue level of a driver who has just finished shift work as they are not obligated to keep log books for their driving.

One of the big difficulties with fatigue and drowsiness, which is different to blood alcohol concentration, is how different people cope with sleep deprivation and how it fluctuates significantly over time. A quick scare or jolt can make a person temporarily alert – similar to the effects of consuming caffeine, but this won’t stop drowsiness forever. Now however, there is a way to determine the drowsiness levels of individuals in real time using Optalert’s early-warning drowsiness detection technology and the Johns Drowsiness Scale (JDS™).

Managing fatigue for shift workers

If unable to access Optalert’s scientifically-proven technology, there are a number of actions which can reduce the risk of a mine site worker suffering a fatigue-related incident. The overall aim is for workers to remain alert during wake periods and attain sufficient restorative sleep and rest whenever possible. The following provide some good inputs for individual fatigue management plans.

  1. Ensure an optimal shift schedule is in place allowing adequate time for recovery sleep
  2. Minimise extended duration shifts
  3. For rotating shift schedules, forward rotation of shifts is preferable – from day to afternoon to night
  4. Obtain at least 7 hours of sleep per day over 24 hours
  5. After a night shift, avoid exposure to bright light (e.g. wear sunglasses, stay indoors)
  6. Avoid alcohol and caffeine prior to sleep, as these can disrupt subsequent sleep
  7. Keep the bedroom dark, quiet and cool to facilitate sleep
  8. Begin recovery sleep as soon as practically possible after a night shift
  9. Take a 30 minute – 2 hour nap prior to night shift to supplement the main sleep period
  10. Use appropriate countermeasures to help maintain alertness such as a 20-30 minute nap and/or caffeine to help maintain alertness – particularly for high risk tasks such as driving
  11. Screen for sleep disorders or health issues

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