Rising Unemployment and Longer Working Hours Highlight Fatigue Policy Flaws

Media Release.  September 13, 2013.

This month the Health Services Union negotiates with the State Ambulance Service over rosters for regional paramedics, with fatigue as a major issue.  Earlier in the year the Industrial Relations Commission ratified an agreement to remove rosters that the union said required paramedics to be on call for 16 hours at a time, 7 days a week.  This month also marked the announcement by Canada’s energy industry of a set of guiding principles around rising workplace fatigue.

“With Australians now working more hours because of job security concerns, fatigue management at work is becoming a more important issue” says fatigue and sleep expert Elizabeth Shannon, “it translates to the bottom line in a myriad of ways such as errors, bad decisions, frayed tempers, memory lapses and increased absenteeism”.  There are 1.4 million shift-workers in Australia, with research showing that 56 percent of them are falling asleep on the job at least once a week.  The US National Highways Traffic Safety Administration calculated the average motor vehicle crash costs an employer $ 16,500.  When a worker has an on-the-job crash that results in an injury the cost to their employer is $ 74,000, and can exceed $ 500,000 when a fatality is involved.

Productivity and brain function problems fall into two broad areas, which can overlap:  fatigue (slowing down of performance which includes errors and accidents), and sleepiness (which relates to the individual’s daily natural sleep-wake circadian rhythm and the amount of sleep they are getting).

Psychological fatigue is caused when relentlessly doing the same task (such as driving a vehicle or placing trade transactions) eventually fatigues the neural networks and causes impairments such as crashing a car, or making an error in the transaction amount.  Fatigue is complicated by emotional stress such as anxiety, exhausted adrenals, trauma, urgency, negative thoughts, over-stimulating and challenging environments, even extreme temperatures and noise.

The sleepiness issue is compounded by anything that prevents people from sleeping properly at night such as inappropriate nutrition, lack of exercise, medical problems, age, and some medications.  If you get really sleepy the body can suddenly and involuntarily just put you to sleep.  The workers most at risk of falling asleep are shift-workers, frequent flyers crossing time zones and all workers that work in hours of darkness.  According to Dr Charles Czeisler of Harvard Medical School, 70 percent of people say they frequently don’t get enough sleep, with 30 percent saying they don’t get enough sleep every single night.

Shannon offers four cost-effective fatigue guidelines to introduce to your workplace:

  1. Capitalize on the light entering windows by placing desks nearby.  The American Academy of Sleep Medicine showed that workers who accessed an extra 173 minutes of light slept on average another 46 minutes at night.
  2. No member of staff should operate equipment and/or dangerous machinery, or drive a vehicle if they have been awake for 14 hours straight.
  3. Napping for periods of up to 20 minutes is allowed at work, and should be encouraged for shift-workers and all staff members who are working after midnight.
  4. No member of staff should catch a red-eye flight and then drive a car, under any circumstances.

Elizabeth Shannon can be contacted by phone + 61 458 41 4441 or email elizabeth@sleeplessnomore.com.  To download the complimentary Executive Function Report outlining the business and personal costs of fatigue visit https://www.sleeplessnomore.com/executive-function/


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