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Losing sleep over safety

Monday, January 05, 2015 by Scott Coles

Managing worker fatigue is complex. High performing 24-hour operations require employees working around the clock and this can bring a number of difficulties in ensuring workers remain alert on the job. Circadian rhythms determine certain times of the day when employees are particularly at risk of drowsy incidents, but of course, similar to the effects of alcohol consumption, every individual is different when it comes to fatigue.

Companies often have reasonably rigid policies about how long a person can work per shift and per week, but how can they ensure an employee is getting the required sleep between shifts to ensure they are alert on the job, and how willing are their employees to let them know they are feeling drowsy when they are working?

Managing worker fatigue

Trends in Australia

Since joining Optalert two years ago, I have noticed a disturbing trend in many 24-hour companies based in Australia. Although stating publicly their complete commitment to fatigue management, the reality on the ground seems to be a very different story.

On a recent trip to Western Australia, one of my senior sales people was told by an HSE Manager of one company they felt workers used fatigue as an excuse. Although their shifts are on average 12 hours per person, they didn’t believe fatigue was of concern and therefore they didn’t need to purchase fatigue monitoring technology. Each year they allow for a few deaths and in fact budget for them.

As we often mention, it is not just the on-site work which can place the employee at danger but the commute to and from their workplace – especially if they are working in a remote location. 

You may have read about a case currently being heard in the courts where a former employee working at a mine site in Central Queensland had a serious accident when travelling home from a 20 hour shift. They are claiming their employer was aware of the hours they had been awake, but ignored the risk to their employee, hence putting them in danger. The injuries the employee suffered are ongoing, and have allegedly affected their ability to earn a full-time wage.

This case, is unfortunately not isolated, but highlights the dangers many workers face on a daily basis.


Fatigue versus drowsiness

Additionally, there is significant confusion between fatigue and drowsiness. Fatigue is what you would feel if you have run a marathon, but you are unlikely to fall asleep. 

Drowsiness is the state just prior to sleep and once a person is drowsy, they are unable to determine exactly when they are likely to fall asleep. In fact, no one knows when they are actually going to fall asleep and that is why we can so often wake up still on the couch. Falling asleep is not a conscious action but it can be measured and mitigated. 


Australia versus the rest of the world

Given we have multiple customers across the world, we can comment with some certainty about the differences between Australian workplaces and those in other countries. Unfortunately, the classic “first world problem” does tend to apply when it comes to fatigue management, but not in the way you’d expect. Firstly Australian companies seem to focus on regulation compliance rather than best use of available technology. And secondly, whether perhaps a measure of strongly unionised countries or possibly the fact more affluent nations are critical and suspicious of change, the introduction of safety initiatives is often a difficult process. Even vehicle safety belts are still not always worn in the trucking industry despite legislation and evidence they can save lives.

Placing the blame

So who is at fault? 

Is it the companies who pretend the risk is not real? Is it the workers who avoid the safety tools they are offered, either because they are afraid of the negative impact on their job, or just because they fear change? 

Or is it the legislators themselves who have ignored the true dangers staff are facing because they are worried about political backlash if they place more restrictions on mining and transportation companies?

I can’t answer those questions with certainly but one thing for which I am sure, it is a disgrace we continually place lives at risk when there is technology which can protect these individuals. No person should leave for work not knowing if they are going to return home safely. 

And for the committed Australian companies who have drawn a line in the sand and have invested in fatigue monitoring tools to protect their employees, I applaud their commitment and compassion. I believe it is time all companies stood up and recognised this risk as real and something they are really prepared to tackle.

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