Managing Fatigue at Work | DCR Workforce Blog

Managing Fatigue at Work

Who has not experienced that 3 to 5 second attack of oblivion, while at the wheel on a long drive? Or right after a transcontinental flight? What happens when a worker fell asleep at the job or suffers cognitive impairment due to fatigue and sleep deprivation– as a driver, a pilot, a crane operator, a surgeon or … – the scenarios vary and most of the possible consequences boggle the mind! Some may be innocuous as when…

Raindrops keep falling on my head …

So I just did me some talking to the Sun. And I said I didn’t like the
way, he got things done… sleeping on the job… those raindrops are
falling on my head, they keep falling. 

If the Sun cannot escape his share of flak for sleeping on the job, what hope can mere mortals have? Jokes aside, the human body follows a circadian rhythm which must be respected and taken into account by managers handling work allocation.

If we remember how, as recently as in March 2011, 165 lives hung in the balance as they landed without any help from the air-traffic control tower at the Reagan National Airport in Washington – we can understand that the accumulated knowledge in this area is insufficient. For those who are hearing this for the first time – it happened because the person manning the tower was asleep. He came clean on all drug tests but succumbed because it was his fourth day on night duty all alone! Fatigue can impair alertness, cause memory loss, irritability, anxiety and drowsiness if not sleep.

Every job makes its peculiar demands of the worker, and it could be that the hours start early in the day or last late into the night, and some require much less focus than others, while some carry huge apocalyptic risks while others carry little or no risk. No fatigued worker can be productive and there is always the threat of attrition due to the stress and health issues which could result from a work atmosphere where shifts are allocated without attention to the worker’s physiological needs.

Workplaces today are being designed to manage the lighting intensity, sound levels, temperature and humidity so as to prevent fatigue. It is imperative for managers to performance management of employees with due attention to the possibility of fatigued employees committing inadvertent errors. Some imperatives to achieve this are discussed below:

  • Understand the limits beyond which performance gets affected.
  • Learn about the industry standards for safety compliance.
  • Conduct a fatigue risk assessment to identify the conditions under which particular employees could pose a risk; factoring in all including the commuting times involved in making such as assessment; seeking advice from external consultants and involving the workers to an extent to make them willing participants in the program.
  • Gauge the effectiveness of fatigue management measures. If required, institute a process of medical assessment to ensure fitness prior to an assignment.
  • Manage work scheduling and roster preparation with attention to all the above details as it is important to maintain adequate staffing levels with optimized shift lengths and patterns, overtime duties and break times and time off duty.
  • Define roles and responsibilities and create documentation laying out the rules and requirements of the fatigue management plan, with periodic audits to ensure that the process is being properly implemented in all its detail.
  • Institute a process for regular review with modifications to the plan, as required.

Like aircraft which could succumb to metal fatigue placing their human cargo at peril, human beings who work at jobs where their actions impact not just their own lives but also those of others must be duly monitored under a due process. Doctors who prescribe medicines and perform surgeries, drivers who cruise at high speeds along highways and operators of light and heavy machinery are just some of the workers whose rostering –when fatigued – must raise a red flag. Such a deployment shall be allowed only with due documentation so that the supervisor who authorizes it is reminded of the possible consequences – along with whatever is top-of-mind like short term compulsions of being short-staffed – which brings us to our next post on absenteeism – other business exigencies.

The content on this blog is for informational purposes only and cannot be construed as specific legal advice or as a substitute for competent legal advice. They reflect the opinions of DCR Workforce and may not reflect the opinions of any individual attorney. Do contact an attorney for advice specific to your issue or problem.
Lalita is a people/project manager with extensive experience in operations, HCM and training and development across industries like banking, education, business consulting, BPO and information technology. She believes in a dynamic approach to life and learning as change is the only constant.