Fatigue is a significant issue across most industry sectors and can pose a serious risk to employees. Dr Vicki Culpin and Philip Crosbie offer some advice on what employers should do.
What does your organisation do to manage the risks associated with employee fatigue? Those working in certain sectors, such as the haulage industry, will be familiar with the strict rules surrounding drivers’ hours and the implications of getting it wrong. Those employers not bound by such specific legislation may be less confident in their answer; they may struggle to reference policies or risk assessments that deal with fatigue and may be unable to demonstrate a culture where fatigue risks inform management decisions.
The general duty of care owed by employers encompasses the assessment, and management, of fatigue. Employers addressing this duty may seek to rely on two potential control measures:
- compliance with the Working Time Regulations; and
- the lack of any fatigue issues identified by the workforce.
Adopting the above arguments would provide only a very weak position for those attesting to have done everything reasonably practicable. Compliance with the Working Time Regulations will not rebut an allegation that fatigue issues exist in the workplace.
Further, as with many areas of health and safety management, an employer must actively find issues that exist in the workforce, rather than waiting for those issues to reveal themselves. Particularly in relation to fatigue, some employees might feel reluctant to raise concerns and others may not be able to recognise the signs of fatigue themselves.
As health and safety practitioners, we are taught to focus on the ‘material’ risks and pay less attention to those that are simply ‘fanciful’. The workplace risks associated with fatigue are well known, they warrant attention, and can be categorised in to three main areas:
Increased risks of accidents in the workplace or while travelling
Poor quality and quantity of sleep have been shown to correlate significantly with motor vehicle accidents and fatalities, as well as industrial accidents or injuries. One particular study found that highly sleepy individuals were 70 per cent more likely to be involved in an accident at work when compared with their well-rested colleagues.
Abilities that include alertness, vigilance and concentration are negatively affected by chronic poor sleep, as are problem-solving, creativity and decision-making abilities. It has been found that decision-making abilities can be affected after a reduction of sleep for just one night. As a result, individuals became more risky when making decisions and were more confident in those decisions.
There is strong evidence to indicate that chronic sleep loss may induce neurobiological changes that can lead to serious health consequences such as an increased likelihood of cardiovascular diseases, impaired immune function and the exacerbation and early onset of Type II diabetes. For example, one study found that for those individuals sleeping six hours or less a night, there was a 48 per cent increase in the likelihood of developing, or dying from, heart disease.
In addition to the above risks, there is also now a growing body of evidence to suggest that chronic sleep loss (such as long-term fatigue) is associated with the exacerbation of certain mental health issues such as schizophrenia and clinical depression. What should be done?
HSE’s current guidance on fatigue is focused on ‘shift workers’ where the risks of fatigue can be more acute. That guidance can still be applied to any workplace and working pattern and should be used to complement an organisation’s current safety management approach. Fatigue is a hazard that can be assessed and mitigated just as any other; whether that is currently the position within organisations is a matter for health and safety professionals to reflect on. We have set out below some of the ‘easy wins’.
Identify the risks
Businesses should identify their key fatigue risks. This could include the aforementioned shift work, sales personnel driving long distances or on-call engineers available throughout the night. As with all safety management, focus should be placed on the most significant risks, with resource appropriately delegated. Determining who is most at risk is not simply a matter of counting the hours, but should also include an assessment of:
- the type of work being performed and whether it is physically or mentally demanding;
- whether an individual has a long commute that significantly extends their working day;
- the choice each individual feels they have over the work they are being asked to do; and
- any home events (such as young children) which may adversely affect the amount of sleep individuals are obtaining each night.
Where relevant, fatigue risks should be captured in risk assessments, along with the appropriate control measures.
Ensure management buy-in
Management needs to be committed to the proper control of fatigue risks and that commitment must be visible and consistent. In an era when employees can be contacted at any time of day, those in management can often be seen to place pressure on employees to work longer hours and step outside of their ‘comfort zone’. Managers and supervisors can also nurture a culture of ‘excessive hours’ being the norm by the way they work themselves and how they communicate their expectations to the workforce.
To combat this, those putting individuals to work should regularly engage with the workforce on the topic of fatigue, discuss and consider the consequences of fatigue in the workplace and factor in fatigue mitigation into business decisions. There are unlikely to have been many health and safety meetings that have listed fatigue as a point for discussion and it is often absent when listing relevant toolbox talks. Employers need to ensure that fatigue is on the agenda.
There have been some excellent initiatives in relation to stress management and support from line managers; that same attention should be directed to fatigue.
Inform the workforce
The workforce should be able to identify the signs of fatigue and know what to do about it. Many risks are covered during employee inductions and training, including manual handling and display screen assessments. However, few organisations include consideration of fatigue. The messages around fatigue, as set out above, can be communicated simply, through leaflets, e-tutorials or short sessions introducing the concept of sleep and the impact on the workforce. There are also many excellent websites and short articles available on the impact of poor sleep.
The duty to consult employees is enshrined in law and employers should engage employees on the issue of fatigue. Where there are changes across the workforce that may impact on fatigue, the use of meetings, team briefings and staff memos/emails is recommended.
However, employers should not ignore the benefits of engaging with employees on an individual basis, for example, following a return to work or as part of a development review. There may be changes in the workplace that affect particular individuals, who will respond differently, and employers should speak with them.
Good examples of where consultation may be necessary include:
- employees placed on secondment, or asked to work from another location, which may increase the daily commute;
- employees whose role is changed to include shift work or differing working patterns (for example, an early start or late finish);
- employees with an increase in travel as part of their role (national or international travel);
- changes in the tasks being performed by the employee; and/or
- changes in the personal circumstances of the employee.
When employee roles are changed, the practicalities are often discussed such as remuneration and job title alterations. Additional training or work equipment may also be provided. However, the impact of that change on the employee’s wellbeing, including potential fatigue, is rarely assessed.
There is a wealth of information available to employers as a way to identify potential fatigue issues. That information is likely to have been already collected, but is not used to its full potential.
Working hours records/databases
Typically for payroll or billing purposes, employers will gather a significant amount of information about the hours each employee has worked. The records may be used to review working time compliance, but can also play a role when considering potential fatigue risks. Employers should consider whether their business has defined triggers to highlight when employees have been working excessively. The definition of what is excessive should also be understood. Further, if the hours typically recorded by an employee change dramatically, this could be cause for review.
Vehicle monitoring software or ‘trackers’
Trackers are often fitted to vehicles for customer service purposes, to enable a live overview of resource allocation. However, many of the trackers also collect time data, showing the length of time the vehicle was in use. Employers can use this information to highlight drivers that have been driving excessive hours and trigger a discussion or review of the necessity of particular journeys. Mileage claims are also a useful indicator of the number of miles employees are driving and can be used to highlight potential issues around excessive driving time.
Expense claims for hotels (and other mitigation)
Some employers mandate the use of hotels to combat potential fatigue. However, organisations are unlikely to check whether hotels have actually been used. Employers should review whether measures such as hotels, conference calls and alternative travel arrangements are used by those in the organisation, or simply ‘window dressing’.
The correlation between fatigue and accidents is well established. Nevertheless, ‘fatigue’ is often omitted from the standard lists of accident causes/root causes. This could be due to a failure on the employer when drafting accident report templates. A more deep-rooted problem may exist where investigators are simply not aware of the need to consider fatigue as a potential contributor or are unaware as to what fatigue looks like.
Eliminate the loopholes
As further reassurance, organisations should ensure that their working arrangements do not encourage employees to put themselves at risk. Paying overtime is a well-accepted practice, but must not compromise employees having appropriate rest. Policies can on occasion unknowingly encourage employees to compromise their safety such as making it more profitable to drive home after a long day (being paid overtime) than it would be to stay in a hotel (when the working day stops upon entering a hotel).
The risks associated with fatigue exist in every undertaking and are as real as those attributed to manual handling or working at height. However, in our experience, fatigue is not given any meaningful attention by those organisations striving to make their workforce safer and healthier.
If employers approach fatigue as they do any other risk, there are some simple control measures that will benefit the workforce and, ultimately, provide an answer to the question originally posed.
Dr Vicki Culpin is Global Dean of Research at Hult International Business School and Philip Crosbie is senior associate in the corporate compliance team at Eversheds.