Fatigue Risk Management

SafeConnection Expert Panel Summary by Mackenzie Wilson


Whether we like it or not, fatigue is a part of our lives, each and every day. We know what it does to our reflexes, our ability to anticipate danger, and what it can do to our decision making. What we don’t know, however, is what to do about it – especially at the workplace. Is it primarily a personal responsibility, or a company responsibility? Can it be tested reliably? And how much control should a company exert regarding fatigue? Certainly, these questions can be discussed in theory, but hearing what real experts are doing in real life to manage fatigue is all the more valuable. Fortunately, Larry was able to get three experts from world-class companies to join him for this panel discussion.

“So Arun”, Larry begins, “I know a lot of your projects run 24/7… when did you start noticing that fatigue was an issue and what did you start doing about it?”. Arun Subramanian (Associate VP HSE – Coromandel International Limited) first makes the distinction that there are different types of fatigue. “One thing that is very common in the manufacturing industry”, he explains, “is shift worker fatigue.” He shares that it’s not only a problem on the manufacturing side and in the plant, but it’s also a problem on the project side where you have 24/7 work in the mix. However, “on the project side you have a floating population, and can manage it a little better, but on the manufacturing side you have quite a lot of issues related to shift worker fatigue.” He explains further that for those working the night shifts, lots of challenges arise with trying to adjust their biological clocks. “We haven’t found any long lasting solutions to this, but we have tried lots of different techniques”, he says, “different plants have different shifts – but they are all 8 hours”.

Hector Salazar (Director EHS – Dragados Canada Ltd.) on the other hand, tells Larry that “in the oil and gas industry and construction – 12 hours a day, 6 days a week is what normally happens”. He explains that workers that are coming to these remote locations to work are aware and are mentally prepared for these long shifts. Dr. Praveena Dorathi (Health Safety Security & Environment Head – JLL West Asia) shares that because her workforce is decentralized, and spread over different client sites, there are some sites operating 24/7 and others not. “We do have shift operations, on a rotational basis” she says. “One person won’t be working night shifts all year, not even throughout the month, it gets rotated on a weekly basis”. She also adds that they give their employees notice in advance of the rotation, so that they can adapt to the change in shift and their circadian rhythms.

“One thing that is very common in the manufacturing industry is shift worker fatigue.  We haven’t found any long lasting solutions to this, but we have tried lots of different techniques.”

Arun Subramanian (Associate VP HSE – Coromandel International Limited)

“So it sounds like you have all moved away from people working permanent shifts”, says Larry, and he thinks this is a good thing from a mental health and fairness point of view. “In my opinion”, he goes on, “fatigue management is mostly a personal thing. Only you really know how tired you are, and only you know why. So sometimes it’s better to hide your fatigue if you haven’t managed your sleep, which makes it difficult for a supervisor to notice”. And then he went on to tell a funny story about one of his first jobs: cutting rugs for a big department store on the weekends. But he concluded by saying that from a safe workplace perspective, the company also needs to be doing what it can do. But other than rotating shift work – what can a company do?

“In the construction industry”, explains Hector, “it’s very important that when you have workers working 12 hours a day, you–number one–break down their activities so they feel like they are accomplishing something”. He elaborates that when you go home at the end of a shift or the end of the week and feel like you have accomplished something, you’re better able to relax and have some peace of mind so that you can enjoy your time off. Arun shares that they have a system in which field operators can be rotated as panel operators, so that the work doesn’t get too repetitive. They also do knowledge sharing sessions with the night shift workers to keep alertness, but, as he says, “it doesn’t compensate for a loss of sleep”. Dr. Praveena agrees with Arun. “Apart from ensuring shift work doesn’t become repetitive, we also shuffle workers and tasks because complacency sets in when a job is continually being repeated”, she says.

The panelists, whether knowingly or not, provided a smooth segway into the next aspect of fatigue Larry was hoping to talk about – repetitive stress fatigue. “One focus”, says Arun, “is on the office works… continually sitting at a desk, especially if you don’t have an ergonomic work table”. “Same goes for the maintenance team who have to work on the shop floor”, he continues, “certain roles are difficult in nature, working continuously in the same position”. He shares that at a previous workplace they tried to standardize as many of these activities as possible, working with a physiotherapist, office administration, safety people as so on. But, “no matter what standardization you have”, he says, “you will always find people working haphazardly… you have a trolley provided for them, and they don’t use it, and you don’t find supervisors enforcing it”. Larry makes a comment about a workplace he got a big job at that really didn’t have any high risk operations, but… the workers pulled carts all day. Their number one recordable injury was shoulder injuries, and it seemed like the supervisors didn’t even notice anymore. “But all the employees know that they should push the cart. And obviously they know when their shoulder starts to hurt. So it’s not easy. And it’s not fair to throw it all on the supervisors”.

“ In the construction industry, it’s very important that when you have workers working 12 hours a day, you–number one–break down their activities so they feel like they are accomplishing something”

Director EHS – Dragados Canada Ltd.

Hector, who recently became uniquely acquainted with repetitive stress after moving to Canada and having to shovel snow off of his deck, also has a lot of experience with acute fatigue on big project sites. “The key”, he says, “is to have extra man power”. In other words, have at least 5% more people than you need, so that when people are taking rests or can’t work there are others to pick up their slack. He also shares that providing breaks, food, and tea or cold isotonic drinks is something the workers really appreciate. All the panelists also agree that having a place for workers to take a rest or nap while on break is a good idea.

It is impossible to discuss fatigue without the conversation eventually turning to Covid fatigue. “Pandemic fatigue, as it is coined”, says Dr. Praveena, “or mental stress, is omnipresent everywhere… not just certain sectors.” To combat this, she shares that they are trying to change the perspective toward Covid-appropriate behaviors from something additional that needs to be done, to something that is just part of their routine. “It needs to be a habit”, she says. “We have just been focusing on keeping our operations in production”, says Hector. “All support areas are working from home, and they come into the office about 20% of the time to keep the teams in contact and integrated”. He explains that in any crisis, such as Covid-19, we are unable to truly be in control, and we don’t know when it will end. “It’s very stressful and produces a lot of fatigue”, he says. Arun also feels that his workforce is suffering from this type of fatigue, but that “senior leadership really plays a major role in bringing down the stress factor due to these external events”.

“Pandemic fatigue, as it is coined or mental stress, is omnipresent everywhere… not just certain sectors.”

Dr. Praveena Dorathi (Health Safety Security & Environment Head – JLL West Asia

So yes – fatigue is inescapable. But there are lots of things that can be done to help combat it at the workplace, and leadership plays an important part in helping to reduce fatigue. But realistically, only we know how tired we are, and in those situations we need to do something about it, before we end up making a minor or costly mistake. We can’t always get more sleep, but we can do some brisk exercise or stretch, have a coffee or tea or take a quick break and close your eyes for 10-15 minutes –just not while you’re driving.

For more resources from SafeStart and for information on the Human side of Safety, click here.

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