Ray Schaffer* explains that psychological factors can be as debilitating as physical injury in the workplace.
DESPITE the vast range of issues under the heading of Occupational Health and Safety (OHS), one health concern that somehow fails to get flagged as a safety issue, is work-related fatigue.
Regardless of the little recognition the condition gets from employers, it has a growing relevance in regards to stress claims made under Workers Compensation Laws.
In the dawn of the early 21st Century, many factors are impacting on people in their daily lives but none more so than work- related stress.
Just as people can be harmed by physical factors, so too can they be affected by psychological issues in the workplace.
Fatigue arising from ongoing stress is often a combination of both work-related issues and factors outside work, but it is at work where the affects of fatigue can be the most dangerous.
Stress triggers often include long shift lengths; poor work scheduling and planning; insufficient recovery time between shifts; harsh work conditions; excess noise or excess vibrations; very cold or excessively hot work stations; demanding and close attention work or; un-demanding, endlessly boring and monotonous work.
The negative risk effects of such mental and physical fatigue factors can include for example: a reduced ability to perform normal duties accurately and safely; a tendency for small issues to cause a major boil over; a reduced ability to identify hazards in the work environment and;inattention to work where once the operator was very focused.
In order to better to understand the generating factors of this type of stress, consider the following major categories that should be assessed for their negative potential.
Categories of stress
A. Corporate Culture
1. The Organisation’s (where non- corporate ) ‘culture’
For example: Few or poor vertical communication and consultative channels;
Little, or no support, in Departmental problem solving;
Little or no leadership in a Work-group and;
Many other similar stress initiators.
2. Worker inter-personal communication channels – conflict ridden
Co-worker “aggro” – perhaps due to ethnic or gender barriers;
Inter-personal racial or religious conflict;
Boss-worker communication barriers where the boss is 100% autocratic);
A culture of bullying or harassment;
Little or no formal written rules regarding safe work methodology and;
Little or no definition of Departmental boundaries or understanding where each Department’s or worker’s responsibilities start/end.
3. No clear definition of roles for members of a team
No clear work responsibility definition -for all operators;
No clear definition of worker-management lines of command. And duties / responsibilities and;
No clear “flexibility” parameters inthe lines of command – instead they are rigid and inflexible.
4. No clear performance appraisal and operator performance planning
Lack of promotion and career planning and;
Career path insecurity.
5. Negative work environment
Cramped, poorly planned work-stations- creating traffic management issues;
Excess noise and;
1. Highly repetitive/unskilled work
Little or no job rotation;
Work of an unpleasant nature (e.g. very cold work such as freezer duties with inadequate protective clothing) and;
Fragmented unrelated tasks, where the worker cannot see his/her role as part of the overall picture, thereforerendering the work meaningless and frustrating.
2. Workload and work pace
Having to work at an un-natural machine dictated pace;
Tight deadlines and;
Periods of no work.
3. Unpredictable hours of work
Strict and inflexible work and;
Poorly planned work periods.
4. Work participation, i.e. little or no input from workers regarding:
Work environment and;
Extended hours of work.
Assessing fatigue risks
By using the above classifications, a number of work processes or situations can become identified as work that needs to be risk assessed according to the requirements of the risk management paradigm.
Critical elements in the risk assessment would include ascertaining those work locations and processes with significant potential for causing high fatigue outcomes.
Because fatigue is often the end result of an inter-play of multiple factors, this complicates the preparation of risk assessments in this field. But, once you are alert to this issue, its impact can be minimised as a contributor of false outcomes.
A key source of information in regards to fatigue-causing stressors is to interview a representative cross-section of those workers who may be at risk.
Encourage (in a one-on-one situation) workers to talk and to provide information. Indicate that their input is valued and will be used in developing better controls or less fatiguing work systems and work scheduling. This will better ensure that the work-load is varied and meaningful and understood as a valuable contribution to achieving the Mission Statement of the business.
In controlling work fatigue risks, it is critical that the bed-rock sources of the fatigue i.e. the generators of the stressors be identified.
These are usually multiple. Such a situation demands multiple controls be set place. Primarily, this normally relates to much improved planning of work and work scheduling.
A frequent cause of fatigue in workers is the offer of bonus payments for extra time.
Workers are lured in to performing these excessively long hours, purely for the monetary reward.
However, the resultant fatigue can cause numerous negative impacts on the worker and on the business – including increased workers compensation costs, injured workers resulting from tired operators being negligent in operating plant – possibly hazardous plant equipment.
Other frequent causes of worker fatigue arise as a result of machine stoppages and operator absences due to illness. The increased work load resulting gets shifted on to those workers asked to stay back and work excessively long hours. Offering pay incentives is a cheap and potentially dangerous solution to the problem leading to excess fatigue.
And if it is recurring, as it often is, it may well be evidence of company and management negligence. This is often all that is needed to ground a criminal prosecution for negligence against the company and the management.
Frequently companies may have extensive training programs that cover the whole gamut of OH&S issues.
Yet, despite having on ongoing problem with old machines or plant breaking down frequently and resultant requests to operators to work long over-time ours, absolutely no training is offered in Fatigue Management and training in subjects such as:
Human body-clocks and individual fatigue;
Risk factors with potential for aggravating fatigue;
Symptoms of fatigue;
Prevention of excess fatigue;
Effects of medication and alcohol use;
Nutrition and fitness and;
Balancing work and life demands.
The solution to this growing OH&S issue, is to develop a Fatigue Management Plan with key emphasis on work planning and scheduling. Create a Fatigue Training Plan. In this way you can evidence your ‘due diligence’ or evidence a workers ‘contributory negligence.’
*Ray Schaffer is the Principal Consultant with the firmR.M.H. Schaffer & CO. health, safety and environment consultants. For more information re the above article or any other OH&S issues, phone 02 9878 0613, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website at: www.environmentdiy.com.au.