Company: Can you train our employees in fatigue?
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?
Government: Good. We need to solve this problem.
Me: You won’t.
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.).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org for the unexpected surge in downloads of your music.)