Fatigue is an acute or ongoing state of tiredness that results in poor judgement, slower reaction times, and reduced capacity to safely perform a task. Fatigue can affect the health and safety of workers directly and indirectly. The only real cure for fatigue is sleep.

The effects of fatigue have often been compared to the effects of intoxication on workers, so it’s important that managers and business operators have a good handle on how to recognise fatigue among their workers … and even themselves.

Fatigue can lead directly to short- and long-term health issues for workers, including stress; depression, obesity, cardiovascular disease and gastrointestinal problems.

Indirect effects of fatigue can affect the health and safety of both the fatigued worker and others in the workplace by exposing them to risk caused by impaired judgement, reduced physical capacity, slower reaction times and a reduced capability to make good decisions.

These effects can lead to serious workplace incidents as well as accidents outside of work, e.g. car accidents while driving to or from work.

In some workplaces, fatigue may only lead to small-scale risks of limited effect, but in high-risk workplaces it can lead to significant injuries, including fatalities and damage to structures and equipment.

A high-risk workplace is a workplace with a high number of hazards and significant risk of serious injury or illness occurring onsite. High-risk workplaces include those where hazardous machinery is operated and/or complex or hazardous processes are undertaken, e.g. operating a crane or forklift, driving a heavy vehicle.

In high-risk workplaces, workers are required to maintain a high level of alertness, meaning that fatigued workers pose a much greater risk to both themselves and others in the workplace.

Under health and safety legislation, you have an obligation to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure the safety of your workers. Therefore, causing or permitting workers to perform work in a fatigued state could expose you to liability for breaching health and safety legislation.

Workers also have a responsibility to avoid putting themselves or others at risk from their work activities, including not performing work while fatigued. You should ensure that workers understand they must inform you if they ever feel too fatigued to work, particularly if they undertake high-risk work.

Seeing the signs

It makes good business sense to train your managers and supervisors to recognise the signs of fatigued workers, including:

  • excessive yawning;
  • irritability;
  • bloodshot eyes;
  • poor performance;
  • lack of focus;
  • slow response times; and
  • taking micro sleeps, i.e. naps lasting 4–5 seconds.

If you notice any of these signs in one of your workers, discuss the issue with them and allow them to take personal or annual leave if required.

Fatigue is generally the result of insufficient energy or rest. Workers can become fatigued for various reasons, including long working hours and significant demands outside of work. Shift work can often result in fatigued workers.

People who work excessive hours, and receive insufficient time for rest and recuperation, are more likely to be fatigued at work. Ensure that your workers are able to cope with the number of hours you assign them.

Make sure your workers feel able to take any personal leave they are entitled to when they need it. Workers sometimes believe that the workplace cannot function without them or that their job is at risk if they do not attend work. This can lead to workers attending work even when they are ill or fatigued, which can lead to health and safety risks and can be much more detrimental to your business than a worker taking a couple of days off to recoup.

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