How technology can mitigate the risk of shift work

Fatigue is not just feeling physically drained or tired; it's also a state of impaired alertness, attentiveness, affecting your mental and physical performance.

Being fatigued also includes having reduced motor coordination, and slower reaction time.

When we are fatigued, there is a loss of environmental awareness, impairment of cognitive/ logical reasoning skills, poor judgment and diminished ability to communicate and/or process communications and information.

In fact, there is now scientific evidence that suggests when we're tired (or mentally fatigued) our ability to perform the simplest of tasks is impaired to the same level as if we were legally intoxicated.

Human error and industrial accidents are on the increase, and regulators are looking to industry to respond and implement a Fatigue Risk Management System. If you don't know where to start and would like to know how to calculate a Fatigue Risk Index, read on.

Mental decrements

Operator fatigue is a critical safety issue that is putting 24/7 operations at risk in our industry. Every day, operators and managers must cope with unusual and difficult work schedules and the reality of operator fatigue.

Fatigue may produce physical and mental decrements in alertness, vigilance, and decision-making that can increase the risk of human error and result in fatalities and injuries.

However, the incidence of fatigue is underestimated in virtually every industry because it is hard to quantify and measure. Recognising that fatigue management requires major changes in both organizational culture and operator behaviour, we must face these challenges.

Companies such as ours, bring together the expertise of government, industry, and labour to create solutions to aid in understanding and managing shift worker fatigue.

Many factors have to be considered, when you're looking for the best candidate to work overtime or cover a shift and the risk factor can be hard to calculate with so many factors to consider.

Risk factor is very important when creating schedules. As responsible managers and operators, we strive to keep our equipment well oiled and well maintained.

We ensure that it is operated in full accordance with the manufacturers design specifications, in terms of temperatures, pressures, flow rates, etc.

To do otherwise would ensure premature failure, costly downtime, high maintenance, and lost productivity/ capacity. It would thus seem to make sense to keep what we all tout as our "most important asset" – our people – equally well maintained and operated.

Yet, ironically, our people are being asked to operate outside their design specs every day to support our continuous production requirements.

Premature failure

The net result, as you might surmise, has been premature failure (in terms of sickness and injury), costly downtime (in terms of absenteeism and presenteeism), high maintenance (in terms of health and wellness costs), and lost productivity due to human error. Continuing to neglect our most important asset will perpetuate this cycle of high cost and catastrophic risk.

It is time to understand that these costs, risks and liabilities no longer have to be accepted and financed as part of doing business.

With today's knowledge base, technology, and available fatigue/ shiftwork interventions, they can be converted into a new source of operating profit and reliability that we never knew or believed existed.

Moreover, they can be systematically addressed through a collaborative, human involvement process between labour and management to achieve substantial win-win benefits.

As a result the 2005 BP Texas City incident, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) recommends that you develop a Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS) that, at a minimum, reduces the risk of fatigue related incidents and contains a methodology for your shift work schedules.

Eliminate fatigue

So how as a company, or as operating mangers, can we objectively, systematically, and measurably eliminate fatigue from our operations, thereby reducing our costs, risks and liabilities?

Recognising that fatigue management requires major changes in both organizational culture and operator behaviour.And is it really possible to increase operational efficiency, while at the same time improving employee health, safety and quality of life to create a win-win proposition?

Perhaps this sounds farfetched, but it's already being done. With the knowledge and experience base that exists today, dramatic improvements are being achieved in the way people live and work, to the betterment of both the employees and the business.

The first, and most important step, is to recognise the cause and the huge costs of fatigue, and make a corporate commitment to eliminate them.

Too many companies are losing money and risking the safety of their employees by not recognising the importance and the urgency of fatigue management.

This is evident by the fact that over 90 percent of shiftworkers receive no training on how to manage their schedules and shiftwork lifestyles.

Social challenges

We see many shiftworkers who are well trained and skilled at their jobs, but who have never been taught how to deal with fatigue, better manage their sleep or adapt to the inherent physical and social challenges of shiftwork.

As a consequence, they develop bad habits and/ or become victims of common shiftwork pitfalls that compromise their ability to perform to their fullest capabilities.

This is just one of the many reasons that shiftworking employees conservatively cost companies $8,600 per person per year in excess costs over and above their daytime counterparts.

Once company management has made a corporate commitment to reduce fatigue and optimise the productivity and safety of their workforce, they need to develop a comprehensive, science based, Fatigue Risk Management Plan.

It's not just a way to be safer, every FRMS rule or standard requires that you evaluate fatigue risk and take active steps to, track fatigue, manage it, and reduce incidents and errors caused by employee fatigue.

To do this efficiently and effectively requires specially-designed, scientifically-validated, software tool that not only test for work-rest rule compliance but also assess work schedule fatigue risk, and evaluates fatigue as a potential cause in incidents and accidents.

[Stephen Maddox is Sales Director, User Centered Design Services; a company that provides solutions to improve operator effectiveness in the control room.]