Shift work and fatigue: what you need to know

 

Fatigue can be a serious hazard in the workplace. It has been identified as a root cause of several major international industrial accidents and around 20 of accidents on the road. As well as being dangerous it can be costly. The estimated cost of fatigue related incidents in the UK is hundreds of millions of pounds.

So what exactly is fatigue and what causes it?

Fatigue is a general decline in performance and wellbeing caused by being overtired through excessive exertion without enough time to rest and recover, disturbed/insufficient sleep and a disruption of the body clock and natural circadian rhythms.

Individuals suffering from fatigue may display a slower reaction time, reduced information processing capabilities, forgetfulness, attention lapses, impaired judgement of risks and lack of coordination. All this can lead to an increased risk of accident or injury as well as more mistakes and a decline in productivity.

Shift workers and fatigue.

Shift workers are particularly vulnerable to fatigue. With over 3 million shift workers employed across a range of sectors in the UK, the HSE considers fatigue an important issue and a key hazard for managers of shift workers to be aware of.

It has been found that more accidents and injuries occur on night shifts, during long shifts and when employees have insufficient break time. Night workers tend to sleep less deeply and for less time during the day, because of the disturbances of daily life around them and the impact of daylight on natural sleep patterns. Reports of fatigue and associated incidents are also higher among machine workers and those whose work is complicated or highly repetitive and fast-paced.

What is the employers responsibility?

As an employer it is your legal responsibility to assess and manage the risks of fatigue in your workplace, regardless of what your employees may prefer or offer to do in terms of working hours. You should consult with your employees on working hours and shift patterns, and consider their
preferences, but any changes to employees working hours must be risk assessed.

When designing a shift pattern, it is important to assess contributing factors to fatigue, such as workload, the type of activity, the timing and length of a shift and the timing and length of breaks both during and between shifts. The HSE offers tools and resources to help with this including their ‘fatigue risk index’. As an employer you can use these to develop, implement and monitor an internal policy on working hours and shift patterns to mitigate against the risks and dangers of fatigue in your workplace.

This document from HSE (http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/books/hsg256.htm) provides a detailed guide to the responsibilities of employers, helping you understand and minimise the risk of fatigue and its associated dangers when designing and implementing shift patterns.

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