It’s hard to overestimate the value of a good night’s sleep, particularly when it comes to environmental health and safety. According to Fatigue in the Workplace, a recent report by the National Safety Council, fatigue threatens worker well-being and productivity, “affects employees’ ability to think clearly, slows reaction time, and decreases attention, vigilance, short-term memory, judgment, and other functions.” The report further states that “employees with sleep problems are at higher risk of injury,” and “as sleep duration decreases, injury risk increases.”
Okay, so maybe you didn’t need the NSC to tell you that. Fatigue is an obvious and pervasive problem. Chances are you’ve witnessed or experienced it firsthand, in the form of lost productivity, absenteeism, near-accidents, or workers falling asleep on the job. All together, these issues carry massive costs; the NSC estimates a typical employer with 1,000 employees will lose more than $1 million each year due to fatigue.
Companies Are Asleep at the Wheel—in More Ways Than One
Cleary, companies should be committed to solving fatigue and sleep deprivation—and most already are. Still, the NSC’s report reveals that most employers “underestimate the prevalence of fatigue in the workforce” and “do not communicate with employees about fatigue.” Many also believe their workers “would not be comfortable admitting they are too tired to perform their job safely.”
Contrary behavior, wishful thinking, and willful denial around fatigue are not exclusive to employers. Employees frequently work against their own health and safety:
- 43% of employees get less than 7 hours of sleep per night, although 94% know that more is optimal.
- 64% of employees believe (incorrectly) that rolling down a vehicle’s windows can prevent drowsy driving.
- 67% of employees who moonlight know working 50-plus hours per week contributes to sleep deprivation—and do it anyway.
5 Ways to Reduce Worker Fatigue Today
Give us a break! Literally. If you’re tired of inaction on this critical issue and want to ensure the members of your workforce are well-rested—and therefore safe and able to perform at their best—here are a few workplace practices to adopt today:
- Know the signs. Many symptoms of workplace fatigue are not immediately apparent unless you know what to look for. In addition to “microsleeps” (i.e “nodding off”), the NSC recommends staying mindful of cognitive issues, such as “decreased vigilance, attention, memory, and concentration.”
- Break up long shifts. Extended working hours are a primary risk factor for worker fatigue. Try to avoid having an individual work for longer than 10 hours straight, and schedule frequent breaks. Even a 10-minute break, according to the NSC, “can provide an employee with enough time to recuperate from task-related fatigue acquired during long-duration, monotonous, or demanding work functions.” If the employee can take a short nap in a designated rest area, even better.
- Pay close attention to night shift workers. The NSC reports that compared with people who work during the day, “night shift workers are three times more likely to be injured.” That may be because they generally tend to get less sleep and experience a lower quality of sleep. Whenever possible, avoid overtaxing your night shift workers, give them plenty of breaks, and provide them with additional support.
- Encourage people to speak up about fatigue. If someone feels too tired to do their job safely, your organization needs to know—yet the NSC found that “only 27% of employers have formal channels for employees to report feeling fatigued.” Make it easy for employees to report their concerns to supervisors. And definitely don’t discipline employees for their fatigue—you’ll only discourage others from coming forward.
- Train, train, train. Employees and employers alike are undereducated about fatigue and its associated risks. Of all the workers the NSC surveyed, a measly 20% demonstrated adequate knowledge on the issue. Few respondents were able to correctly identify the factors that contribute to fatigue, the proper amount of time for rest breaks, the facts about sleep apnea, or the signs of drowsy driving.
Do all of the above, and you’ll likely reduce a major source of risk in your facilities—and you might just sleep better, too.
That said, while fatigue is perhaps the perfect example of a crisis in EHS today—an obvious problem that goes unsolved when organizations say one thing and do another—it’s just one problem of many, and it can’t be fixed through education and intentions alone. Words do not a safety culture make. Culture comprises our natural, automatic behaviors. And to get a cultural change to stick, we have to make it into a habit that everyone—from frontline employees to leadership—will naturally, automatically follow.
Check back here soon as we explore how to do just that. Until then, don’t sleep on KPA’s “Making a Safety Culture Truly Cultural” whitepaper.