Sleep and Fatigue
Fatigue refers to the issues that arise from excessive working time or poorly designed shift patterns. It is generally considered to be a decline in mental and/or physical performance that results from prolonged exertion, sleep loss and/or disruption of the internal clock. It is also related to workload, in that workers are more easily fatigued if their work is machine-paced, complex or monotonous. Sleep helps us to recover from mental as well as physical exertion, and is vital for maintaining good mental and physical health. The relationship between sleep, physical health, and mental functioning is therefore difficult to overstate.
Fatigue results in slower reactions, reduced ability to process information, memory lapses, absent-mindedness, decreased awareness, lack of attention, underestimation of risk, reduced coordination etc. Fatigue can lead to errors and accidents, ill-health and injury, and reduced productivity. It is often a root cause of major accidents e.g. Herald of Free Enterprise, Chernobyl, Texas City, Clapham Junction, Challenger and Exxon Valdez.
Fatigue has also been implicated in 20% of accidents on major roads and is said to cost the UK £115 - £240 million per year in terms of work accidents alone.
Employers have a legal duty to manage risks associated with fatigue and sleep loss under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, with the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 being the main instrument for risk assessment and management systems to control such risks.
Key principles in fatigue include:
Fatigue needs to be managed, like any other hazard.
It is important not to underestimate the risks of fatigue. For example, the incidence of accidents and injuries has been found to be higher on night shifts, after a succession of shifts, when shifts are long and when there are inadequate breaks.
The legal duty is on employers to manage risks from fatigue, irrespective of any individual’s willingness to work extra hours or preference for certain shift patterns for social reasons. Compliance with the Working Time Regulations alone is insufficient to manage the risks of fatigue.
Changes to working hours need to be risk assessed. The key considerations should be the principles contained in HSE’s guidance. Risk assessment may include the use of tools such as HSE’s ‘fatigue risk index’.
Employees should be consulted on working hours and shift patterns. However, note that employees may prefer certain shift patterns that are unhealthy and likely to cause fatigue.
Develop a policy that specifically addresses and sets limits on working hours, overtime and shift-swapping, and which guards against fatigue.
Implement the policy and make arrangements to monitor and enforce it. This may include developing a robust system of recording working hours, overtime, shift-swapping and on-call working.
Sleep disturbances can lead to a ‘sleep debt’ and fatigue. Night workers are particularly at risk of fatigue because their day sleep is often lighter, shorter and more easily disturbed because of daytime noise and a natural reluctance to sleep during daylight.
By effectively assessing the risk, designing effective and safe shift patterns and educating staff on the effects and controls of fatigue, these risks can be managed and avoided. For further help in reducing the risks for your business please contact us here.