Stopping the Dream Police: Why Regulations Are Not the Answer to Fatigue

Stopping the Dream Police: Why Regulations Are Not the Answer to Fatigue

Company: Can you train our employees in fatigue?
Me: Yes.
Company: Good. We need to solve this problem.
Me: You won’t.

As many of you know, my goal is to continually drive the fatigue conversation until it is firmly recognized as a hazard to be dealt with at the organizational level. Unfortunately, there remains a strong undercurrent within management structures that suggests that sleep and alertness are completely in the hands of the worker, and that training is the answer.


The reality is, it doesn’t matter what an individual does at home if their work causes excessive amounts of fatigue, or if their work schedule doesn’t accommodate for adequate recuperative sleep before returning to duties the next day. The same is true if you force workers to take three different jobs to make ends meet because you don’t want to cover benefits associated with full-time work (I’m looking at you, health care).

Enter prescriptive rules and regulations.

Government: Can you help us establish new fatigue management regulations?
Me: Yes.
Government: Good. We need to solve this problem.
Me: You won’t.

Rules around hours of service were first implemented to allow employees defined periods of off-duty time to accommodate for sleep, meals, family, and other activities of daily living. By doing so, it was believed that employees would be able to return to their next tour of duty well-rested and fit for work. Basically, it was a way for the government to force organizations to address the issue of fatigue caused by overly demanding work schedules. It was a simple approach to a complex problem.

And it doesn’t work.

What the science says

There is no question that science has definitively established a connection between fatigue, safety, performance, and work schedule design. However, there is a critical gap in scientific data to link work/rest rules as the go-to solution or to quantify the benefits of such regulations. This is not to say there are no benefits, but the data has not been produced. We cannot forget that the objective should be to improve safety by eliminating fatigue-related hazards or reducing their risk levels, and this requires quantification.

Furthermore, most work/rest rules are not up to date with our current scientific understanding of sleep neurobiology and functional performance, which is why many government and industry bodies are looking to update what’s in place. Specifically, they don’t account for critical details such as:

  • Circadian factors (e.g., time of day that work/sleep occurs, impact of permanent vs. rotating shifts, predictability of schedule, acute fatigue vs. cumulative fatigue, etc.);
  • Homeostasis factors (e.g., short and long break durations, split schedules, total consecutive hours of wakefulness, etc.);
  • Workloads (physical, cognitive, environmental, situational); or
  • Other conditions that influence personal fatigue levels (e.g., commuting factors, second jobs, etc.).

Complicating Matters

Managing work schedules is further complicated when an organization has to accommodate for unusual operational requirements (e.g., unplanned events, emergencies, shutdowns, etc.), collective agreements that provide both incentives and disincentives to when employees choose to work, and the employee’s own personal preferences as dictated by seniority, lifestyle, and potential earnings. It cannot be overlooked that unions and the employees themselves must share responsibility for safe and healthy choices associated with the work scheduling decisions that they are involved in.

Prescriptive rules do not acknowledge these complications, and it is extremely unrealistic to think that even new regulations will cover all contingencies and still be practical in all affected organizations.

Simply put, prescriptive rules are not the answer, and will not guarantee that a worker shows up fit for work. As most government agencies have recognized, hours-of-service regulations offer little value if they are not supported by a fatigue management process. That means regardless of regulations, organizations still need to do their part.

Ask yourself this. What do you do when you notice an employee who is assigned to a safety-critical task yawning, rubbing his eyes, and moving slower than usual, and you know they still have four more hours on shift? What actual procedures do you currently have in place to:

  • Allow the employee to communicate that they are struggling with fatigue (this requires a “just” culture, where the worker does not face punitive action – is it his fault the baby kept him awake all night?);
  • Train supervisors in how to assess fatigue-related risk (how are they to measure the risk? What thresholds have been established?);
  • Provide supervisors with tools to mitigate the risk (what rest and recovery options do you have at your disposal? Can safety critical tasks be performed by someone else, or moved to a different time of day?);
  • Get the worker home safely?


Is there a role for work/rest rules or hours-of-service regulations? Yes!
Do employees need to be trained in how to manage fatigue? Absolutely.

My message is this… don’t lose sight of the organizational responsibilities inherent to solving this issue. If your workers perform safety-critical tasks and you do not have a formal fatigue management process in place, be assured, regulations are coming that are broader and will affect all industries. Many government agencies and industry groups have already reached out for input from myself and other leaders in the field. Don’t wait for others to set the rules for what you can or cannot do. Any prescriptive hours forced upon you by the dream police will still need to be balanced with economic viability, collective agreements, and changing societal and customer demands.

Identify your fatigue related hazards.

Assess their risk levels.

Mitigate, mitigate, mitigate.

Because they’re coming for you. 

(P.S. My apologies to anyone born after 1979 that did not experience the power-punk that was Cheap Trick and one of their greatest hits, “The Dream Police.” You know not what you’re missing! But I digress…)

(P.P.S. If anyone from Cheap Trick is following this, please know that you can send royalties to myself at for the unexpected surge in downloads of your music.)

The High Price of too Little Sleep

The High Price of too Little Sleep

The original article appeared in WorkSafe BC Magazine. Article by Sarah Ripplinger

Fatigue is more than just a bad night’s sleep. Being in a chronic state of tiredness has adverse health effects from slow response times to increased vulnerability to disease. Employers can reduce the harm by creating a fatigue risk-management system.

Getting enough sleep is essential for our health, but it’s often easy to believe we can overcome fatigue with another cup of coffee or a splash of cold water to the face. In reality, the rise of digital technology and 24/7 workplaces is changing the way we work, and making it easier to work at any time of the day.

This comes with business benefits in terms of workplace productivity, flexible work schedules, and meeting growing consumer needs. But the flip side is that, according to a sleep review from Dalhousie University, only 26 percent of Canadians get a minimum seven hours of sleep per night. And an estimated 40 to 50 percent of workers are fatigued at work.

“Globally, fatigue has been identified as a contributory factor in many serious and fatal incidents spanning decades. It is having real impacts on workplace health and safety,” says Heather Kahle, a human factors specialist and ergonomist at WorkSafeBC. “Fatigue decreases one’s ability to perceive and process important information necessary for safety. It may also decrease one’s ability to adequately respond to workplace hazards.”

More than feeling drowsy or sleepy, fatigue is an acute or chronic state of tiredness. Disruptions to our body’s natural circadian rhythms — which affect our sleeping and waking cycles — from such things as shift work, long shifts, and back-to-back shifts increase the risk

of workplace fatigue. If left unchecked, fatigue can contribute to long-term health effects, such as a vulnerability to certain types of cancers, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Putting workplace fatigue to bed WorkSafeBC held its inaugural Fatigue Risk Management Symposium on June 7, 2018, to raise awareness of the risks associated with fatigue in the workplace and the importance of addressing them. Nearly 200 professionals from a variety of industries heard from five leading experts on fatigue-related risk in the workplace.

Presentations and discussions covered topics ranging from fatigue risk management to circadian rhythms and how fatigue influences workplace performance. Presenter Mike Harnett, president of Solaris Fatigue Management, emphasized why it’s important for employers to take an active role in preventing fatigue. She notes that fatigue in the workplace only became part of the broader risk assessment dialogue for employers in the past three to four years, largely due to increased reporting on scientific findings that show fatigue impairment is real. Before that, fatigue was often seen as an issue for workers, not employers. Fatigue risk management is a shared responsibility. “We cannot continue to blame the worker and classify the cause of incidents as ‘human error.’” The challenge now, Harnett says, is to continue to raise the profile of fatigue as a risk-management priority. “Management needs to see fatigue as a business issue

and collect metrics to drive informed decision making,” says Harnett. “Only through the  collection of objective data can management set targets that support KPIs [key performance indicators]. As we often say in the safety world: What gets managed, gets done.” Managing fatigue from the top down A fatigue risk-management system (FRMS) is a highly useful framework employers can use to proactively identify and evaluate hazards and risks that may result in harm or adverse outcomes. Critical to this undertaking is establishing an integrated, consistent, and trustworthy system-wide approach to identify, assess, and control for the risks that can escalate in the presence of fatigue. Transparent reporting and evaluation policies are also essential ingredients of a successful FRMS. “With fatigue recognized as a key contributory factor in workplace health and safety, FRMS is a solid framework used worldwide to measure, mitigate, and manage the risk of fatigue,” says Kahle. “It can be used to set priorities and establish baseline data to evaluate fatigue management strategies over time to ensure that

targets are being met and the appropriate interventions are being used. “Employers will have fatigued workers in the workplace at some point. It’s important to ask yourself if hazards in the workplace increase the risk of harm or could lead to adverse safety outcomes when workers are

fatigued,” adds Kahle. “When workers miss changes or important information in their environment because of fatigue, it affects everything we do in the workplace. Addressing this can save businesses countless dollars due to injury and lost productivity.” For more information

To assess the level of your daytime sleepiness, check out the Epworth Sleepiness Scale, which is easily searchable online.

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