What has Sleep got to do with Fatigue?

You may not believe this, but I am continually being asked by people “What has sleep got to do with fatigue?”

And it made me have a little – or maybe a BIG – think!

How could this question even be asked? How insane is this?

So here’s the problem as I understand it.

There is so much legal exposure associated with “fatigue”, and perceived costs in avoiding fatigue, that everyone seems to be hell bent on locking up and restricting the meaning of fatigue – and it has resulting in industries, organizations, businesses – even the government – completely missing the point.

And legislating to institutionalize missing the point!

Readiband Technology

Fatigue Science, an organization in America and Canada, is linking fatigue and sleep with some impressive technology developed by the US military.

OK, this might sound like an ad for them, and I’m prepared to give them one!

Fatigue Science is promoting the use of the Readiband. The Readiband is a wrist band put around the wrist of people who are being studied – to track their sleep, alertness during working hours and a number of other variables that relate to sleep, fatigue and safety at work and outside of work.

For those of you who would like to know what sleep has got to do with fatigue, specifically in relation to shift work – have a look at the video below.

In this video you will see that for workers working the midnight till 9 am shift they are working for about 71 percent of the time with impaired functions – the equivalent of .08 alcohol level – or the same as being legally drunk.

This technology is used by the US military (of course), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and elite sporting teams in both the USA and Canada.

And I’ve noticed a few forward thinking Australian organizations who are using this technology – Rio Tinto and Queensland Rail.

What Sort of Workers Work in the Dark, Dangerous Hours?

Let’s think of some of the people who work those shifts, and tell me if you like the idea any more. Emergency medical workers, nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers and workers, the police (armed?), security guards (armed?), and truck drivers.

Even the more benign cases of international trading and late night studying aren’t impressive, are they? Remembering one of the drugs of choice for money market and trading personnel is cocaine – let’s not pretend.

Preventing and Managing Fatigue in the Workplace.

Given the relationship between sleep and fatigue the only way to PREVENT fatigue in the workplace would be to ask a raft of questions to workers WHEN THEY ARRIVE AT WORK. Yes, that’s a radical idea. But not any more radical an idea than to say that fatigue at work only happens after a nominated and seemingly randomly chosen number of hours of work. And in certain conditions – e.g. working without a break, working in hot and dusty conditions, working underground, etc.

Does your workplace, for example, ever ask the following questions? Or do they have a fatigue policy which covers the following sorts of issues?

Let’s be contentious and ask these questions at 9 am on Monday morning – the start of most people’s working week:

1. Did you sleep for 7.5 hours or more last night? Did you get enough sleep on Saturday night too?
2. Do you generally sleep OK at night?
3. Did you take any mind altering substances on the weekend? If so, how long ago was that? And what were they?
4. Did you use drugs or alcohol to get to sleep last night?
5. If you used a sleeping tablet to go to sleep last night, what is that medications half life?
6. If your medications half life spreads into working hours, how confident do you feel that you can work safely and think alertly today?
7. Did you do any traveling across time zones in the last 24 hours? What was that?

I think you’ve got the drift.

Is this an invasion of privacy? Always?

Do you think this will never happen? What if this person is using heavy machinery? What if this worker is in the military? What if this person is dealing with explosives? What if this person is transporting a dangerous substance by truck on the road? What if this person is in charge of how the release of toxic substances is conducted and monitored?

We Need to Change Sleep and Fatigue Policy

Do you know of ONE organization that has policies that reflect any of this? I’m genuinely interested. If so, please put a comment on the bottom of this post.

Do you know of an organization that even mentions sleep in it’s fatigue policies?

So where is the cut-off point for tolerance of lack of sleep, or ineffective sleep?

It’s a hard question to answer.

Generally the rules tighten after disaster investigations. But we’ve already had big disasters related to fatigue such as Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Challenger, and Three Mile Island.

That clearly isn’t working.

What’s your threshold for when private lives become public responsibilities?

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