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Fatigue in the workplace can lead to accidents, injuries, and loss of life. The term in this context refers to reversible physiological reduction in muscle activity and cognitive function, as opposed to news fatigue or being tired of supporting a chronically losing sports team. It can be the result of insufficient sleep, prolonged physical or mental activity, and/or disruption of our natural Circadian rhythms because of irregular shift work patterns.
Fatigue contributed to the tragic explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 that occurred 73 seconds after launch, taking the lives of all seven crew members, among them one civilian. In addition to technical failure, the Presidential Commission’s report revealed that there was poor judgement on the timing of the launch and that key managerial staff involved in the launch had been performing on less than two hours’ sleep the night before.
Other high profile calamities that were subsequently linked to human fatigue are the Chernobyl disaster, also in 1986; the “near-catastrophic launch” of the space shuttle Columbia, only days before the Challenger tragedy, and London’s Clapham Junction railway crash in 1988.
While there is no specific OSHA policy on extended or unusual shifts, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) states that, “Any work over 40 hours in a 168 hour period is counted as overtime.” The FLSA applies to employees who work in interstate commerce, hospitals, schools, day workers, chauffeurs, cooks, housekeepers, and full-time babysitters.
Workplace fatigue has been studied in other fields, such as aviation, the military, law enforcement, firefighting, healthcare, transportation, and emergency rescue. Several federal agencies have developed Fatigue Risk Management Programs. These include:
According to experts, employers act to mitigate the risk of fatigue in the working environment. Not surprisingly, the federal agencies mentioned above also describe actions that individuals also can take to make sure they do not fall victim to fatigue and inflict injury on themselves, the public or their co-workers.
Reflect on the prevailing work environment and assess it for possible contributors or indicators of fatigue. Is the team understaffed? Consider the workload balance and ask yourself if your team is forced to work at a frenetic pace without pausing to take frequent, short breaks.
Look at the pattern of worker absences, both planned and unplanned. If people are taking a lot of time off sick, it could indicate that you’re working them too hard. If your team is forced to absorb the workload of absentee members, it may increase the risk of their becoming fatigued.
What can you do to minimize the risk of worker fatigue? Experts recommend:
While employers do have a responsibility to maintain a safe working environment, employees have a duty to keep themselves fit for purpose.
OSHA has produced a 10-hour Safety Training Course that teaches managers and their employees how to maintain a safe working environment. Aimed at electricians, mechanics, environmental health and safety personnel, maintenance technicians, owners & managers, and a host of others, the course explains which OSHA rules are most frequently violated and how companies can reduce instance costs by avoiding citations.
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