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Battling Worker Fatigue

Mar 29, 2018 06:00AM ● By MED Magazine

By Kelly Marshall

“You look tired.” Everyone knows this is never a compliment. But did you also realize it can be an actual danger to yourself and others in your workplace? While fatigue is not the same thing as general sleepiness, ongoing lack of quality sleep can increase the risk of fatigue. Additionally, shift work, workload, monotonous tasks, and other environmental factors can also increase one’s risk of fatigue in the workplace.

So what’s the big deal? Consider these historical incidents as you ponder this question: Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion1. Worker fatigue played a role in each of these historical disasters. Fatigued employees are nearly three times as likely to be involved in a workplace accident2. It’s estimated that up to 13% of workplace injuries could be attributed to fatigue3. Increased fatigue increases the risk of errors in judgment, slows reaction time, and decreases productivity and work performance3.

As hours of sleep decrease, workplace injury rates increase. Research shows that those sleeping less than seven hours a night experience a significantly higher risk of injury than those who sleep more than seven hours on a regular basis3.

It is estimated that fatigued worker productivity can cost employers between $1,200 to $3,100 annually per employee4. In addition to direct costs, employers may experience the indirect costs of additional medical conditions that plague the fatigued: diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and obesity, to name a few.

Shift workers, especially those working night or rotating shifts, can be at a higher risk for fatigue as both the duration and timing of their sleep is likely to be affected. Sleep loss can actually mimic alcohol intoxication. Environmental conditions can be a factor, as well. Environmental causes such as temperature, lighting, and noise can all contribute to fatigue. Here’s what else you should look for:

  • Increased errors in judgment

  • Memory lapses

  • Microsleeps; drooping eyes and nodding heads

  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing

  • Slowed reaction time

  • Irritability

  • Reduced ability to handle stress on the job

  • Increased sick days or absenteeism

So what can you do? Most importantly, raise awareness. A recent survey shows that only 20% of employees understand fatigue3. Provide employees with the education and resources they need to recognize signs of fatigue in themselves and their colleagues. Include fatigue education in safety talks, memos, and posters in your workplace.

Allow for flexible scheduling and breaks whenever possible, especially for those working high-risk shifts, hours, or jobs. Employees with long commutes may also be at increased risk for workplace fatigue. Assure that these employees have the opportunity for an appropriate amount of turn-around time between shifts whenever possible.

Implement a Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS)5. This may include workplace fatigue assessment, investigation, and follow-up. By including fatigue in your accident and incident reporting, you gain additional opportunities to identify fatigue risk within your organization.

 Kelly Marshall is an occupational therapist and a member of the South Dakota Occupational Therapy Association and the American Occupational Therapy Association. She is a Job Analysis and Ergonomics Specialist with RAS.

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1Employee Health and Safety. (2002). Severe impact of fatigue in the workplace examined. Retrieved from

2A fundamental way to reduce fatigue & workplace accidents. (n.d.). Retrieved from

3Fatigue in the workplace: Causes & consequences of employee fatigue. (2017). Retrieved from

4Fatigue – you’re more than just tired. (n.d.). Retrieved from

5Lerman, S. Eskin, E., Flower, D., George, E., Gerson, B., Hartenbaum, N., Hursh, S., & Moore-Ede, M. (2012). ACOEM presidential task force on fatigue risk management. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 54(2), 231-258.