Beat Fatigue to Reduce the Bottom Line

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – Having tired workers is more than just a simple annoyance. It’s a problem that costs big bucks for every organization that does not recognize or address it.

“Fatigue is a workplace hazard,” said Kevin Dorn, CEO and president of DORN Companies. “It affects the ability to think clearly and respond appropriately and, as such, has been linked to workplace injuries. Thirteen percent of all workplace injuries can be attributed to fatigue in some manner.”

Fatigue costs employers between $1,200 and $3,100 per employee per year, according to several studies. Ignoring the issue is not a wise option, experts say. But there are interventions that even the smallest of companies can take to make sure workers are awake and alert during the workday.

The Problem

More than two-thirds of employees are tired at work at some time. In addition to an increased risk of injury, fatigued workers have higher rates of absenteeism, diminished productivity and healthcare costs. The vast majority of employers — 90 percent — have felt the impact of workplace fatigue.

The cognitive impacts of being too tired include:

  • Loss of situational awareness
  • More time on tasks
  • Underestimating risks
  • Flawed logic
  • Hindered visual perception – eyes are dramatically affected
  • Impaired hand-eye coordination
  • Poor problem solving

Research bears out the effects of fatigue on work performance. In a study of police officers, researchers found those who were fatigued relied on more aggressive forms of control and even used excessive force compared to when they were well rested. They also had more paperwork errors, received more citizen complaints, and had hand-eye coordination problems.

A Harvard Medical School study found that interns who worked for 24 consecutive hours increased their odds of self-inflicted needle or scalpel wounds by 61 percent. They also had a 168 percent increased risk of motor vehicle accidents following their shifts, and had a 460 percent rise in near misses, such as when dispensing medications, or driving.

An Australian study found that staying awake for more than 20 hours equates to having a blood alcohol level of .08. At 24 hours, it is .10. “Once you start getting past the .08 or .10 [level], we’re really looking at somewhere around the area of a 40 percent drop in alertness,” said Mike Harnett, president at Solaris Fatigue Management. “So we are operating in a fatigue state if we don’t get enough rest.”

What and Why

Fatigue has become more prevalent in the workplace and has generated increased media coverage in recent years for a variety of reasons. Experts say the world is changing and has more 24/7 accessibility. Working12-hour shifts, and at varying times of the day and night increase tiredness. Additionally, the use of alcohol, lack of adequate rest, poor diets and failure to exercise can lead to chronic fatigue.

Fatigue is not the same as drowsiness, which fluctuates throughout the day and can be masked by caffeine, or conversation. Fatigue accumulates over time. The only remedy is sleep.

“You cannot Starbuck it away, and you certainly cannot Red Bull it away. Those will not eliminate the fatigue that is building in your body,” Harnett said. “And the thing is if we don’t address that sleep issue we’re going to see it manifest into short- and long-term effects in terms of our physical health, our mental health and even our emotional status.”

What’s important is to recognize how fatigue impacts job performance. “We have to start making that link … because in lieu of not making that distinction we have organizations that really don’t understand that they have a fatigue problem and don’t see the need to address fatigue,” Harnett said. “Impaired is impaired.”

Interventions

From changing the way tasks are performed, to changing schedules, and educating workers about proper sleep, there are many steps employers can take to prevent fatigue among workers.

Some of the biggest causes of fatigue are repetitive motions, excessive force and awkward movements. Work and/or work spaces can be reorganized and designed to minimize those factors. Ergonomic consultants can be brought in to help improve workstation design and interface, as well as training workers in basic ergonomic principles.

Employees can also be informed about self-management techniques that can go a long way to helping them feel more alert. Preventive exercises, for example, can reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injuries.

Exercise in general is one of the main deterrents to fatigue, and helps people get better quality sleep. Exercising at least three days a week can go a long way toward reducing fatigue.

Posture is another big contributor to fatigue, especially if workers are sedentary and in static positions. While standing is said to be better than continuous sitting, it’s important to take periodic breaks from that as well. Prolonged standing, for 45 minutes or more, can lead to leg or back discomfort. For workers who do stand, anti-fatigue mats help reduce stress on the body.

Employers can vary tasks where possible and provide rest breaks to keep workers moving. Instead of adding in extra time for breaks, employers can provide shorter, more frequent breaks so workers vary their postures and move throughout the day.

Developing a Plan

Organizations can start to develop and implement preventive strategies by first looking at their own workforces and identifying where and why most injuries occur. For example, is it an older workforce? Is it comprised of mostly males or females? What body parts are more likely to be injured?

Talking to workers and engaging them in the process can provide invaluable insights into the challenges they face that may be causing fatigue. Brainstorming with them can lead to solutions. Questionnaires can be given to workers, or having discussions in small groups to find out, for example, when they experience physical stress the most.

Observing workers at different times of the day can also show whether and when employees change their behaviors and adopt new ways of moving or working to deal with their discomfort.

Armed with such information, organizations can create strategies that help reduce fatigue among their workers.

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