Despite what we may see in our work culture today, humans are not designed for working shift work. However, advances in technology and the desire for more production has driven our culture to working around the clock, resulting in unforeseen wear and tear on the human body as time progresses. Fatigue risk management is becoming more and more of a buzzword in industry today. Fatigue is a very real and relevant workplace hazard that should not be ignored. Fortunately, there are a number of simple things that can be done to raise awareness and control fatigue hazards in the workplace. Before we get to how we can control fatigue risk, let us take a look at the evolution of fatigue risk from a historical perspective.
Electric light became commercialized in 1890. Prior to the availability of electric light around the clock, most workers worked during daylight hours and rested at night once the sun went down. However, the introduction of electric light allowed work to take place after sunset, resulting in longer workdays and the addition of second and third shifts. Throughout most of the 20th century, various regulations were introduced in an attempt to control fatigue by limiting hours of work per week or month. Beginning in the 1970s, however, advances in the science of sleep began to show how these hours of work limits were inadequate in controlling worker fatigue.
In the 1990s, industry began to see fatigue risk management systems beginning to emerge in a workplace and, by the early 21st century, a number of international regulations and standards began to appear that demanded fatigue risk management be addressed in the workplace. Only in the past 15-20 years have we seen fatigue risk management requirements emerge in the railroad, aviation, oil and gas, and other industries.
So, what did we learn that raised awareness to the fact that fatigue risk required attention? Well, as science progressed around the study of the human body and the need for rest, we learned that we had a biological clock, otherwise known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus. Scientists learned that the biological clock regulated certain daily rhythms of the human body including, but not limited to body temperature, growth hormone and melatonin production, and urine output. Night time rest and growth hormone and melatonin production are intended to provide the body with much needed repair (both mental and physical) from being up all day. When we disrupt these rhythms, we disrupt the rest and repair process, resulting in a level of fatigue and stress on our bodies. We also learned that we all have consistent times of peak performance during the day and slumps where fatigue risk is increased. We also learned how various external factors affect our health and contribute to fatigue risk.
Employee fatigue can lead to more obvious physical and mental alertness deficiencies, resulting in accidents, injuries, errors, or affected decision-making and communication. It can also affect a worker’s morale, absenteeism, and overall health. One of the most significant relationships between worker fatigue and workplace injuries occurred in 2005 when a large oil refinery experienced an explosion where 15 workers lost their lives and more than 180 others were injured. While there were a number of contributing factors, the Chemical Safety Board found that worker fatigue was a factor in the explosion. As a result, the Chemical Safety Board recommended that the American Petroleum Institute (API) develop fatigue prevention guidelines. This ultimately resulted in a joint effort between the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), API, and industry to develop Recommended Practice 755, which provides guidelines for managing fatigue in the petrochemical and refining industry.
Does your facility engage in production around the clock? Do you have a fatigue risk management system in place to recognize, evaluate, and control fatigue risk? Have you provided your workforce with the knowledge and training they need to understand the effects of fatigue and the steps they can take to combat those effects? Let ATC Group Services LLC partner with you in assessing your workplace fatigue risks and developing and implementing programs to reduce those risks to your most important asset: your workforce.
Download a Fatigue System Checklist and Risk Index here, or contact us if we can be of assistance.
This article was written by Brad Jones, a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) and Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM). He is an Industrial Hygiene Practice Group Leader for Oil and Gas based in ATC’s Houston, TX office. Connect with Brad here.