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Does Fatigue Increase Workplace Accidents?

January 18, 2022

People are working harder and longer than ever before, including those who are working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, because work is always-accessible at home, some employees may even work more hours than if they reported to an office. Americans are known to skip or shorten vacation time. They may worry about deadlines, answering emails, missing important meetings, or letting a project lag. Many employees work long hours in addition to not taking time off. The end result is an overly fatigued U.S. workforce, which can be dangerous to everyone.

The National Safety Council (NSC) says on-the-job fatigue can be deadly. Their research shows that more than 43 percent of workers are sleep-deprived, especially those working long or irregular shifts or overnight.

Fatigue can lead to performance and safety issues, and it can even lead to a workplace accident. According to the NSC:

  • A tired person is three times more likely to be in a car accident.
  • One fatigued worker can cost an employer up to $3,000 annually in productivity.
  • Two hours of lost sleep is equivalent to having three beers and being intoxicated.
  • Chronic sleep deprivation can result in depression, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and other illnesses.
  • Fatigue reduces physical and mental functioning, leading to accidents, mistakes, and the inability to plan well and solve problems at work.
  • Fatigue negatively affects hand-eye coordination, attention span, and general motor skills.

What Causes Worker Fatigue?

The body operates on a circadian rhythm sleep/wake cycle. It is naturally programmed to sleep in the nighttime hours. Long work hours and extended or irregular shifts can disrupt these natural body rhythms for many workers. The result is stress, fatigue, and lack of concentration. Fatigue also physically affects workers, resulting in mistakes leading to severe workplace injuries or death.

Lack of sleep is not the only culprit. Poor quality or interrupted sleep can also lead to tired workers, as can irregular or extended shift work. A global culture of 24-hour service can also be part of the problem.

The following are examples of employees who may be affected by fatigue:

  • Health care providers.
  • Transportation workers, including bus drivers, rideshare drivers, and airline pilots.
  • Firefighters.
  • Police officers.
  • Paramedics.
  • Military personnel.
  • Construction workers.
  • Oil field workers.
  • Service and hospitality employees.
  • Factory and plant workers.
  • Air traffic controllers.
  • Security guards.
  • Utility workers.
  • A worker who is abruptly moved from first to second or third shifts. There is an actual medical condition called shift work sleep disorder.
  • Workers who are required to work overtime for a certain period. The change to their daily schedules and sleep schedule can result in dangerous fatigue.

Research reported by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) shows that:

  • Accident and injury rates are 18 percent greater during evening shifts and 30 percent greater on night shifts than day shifts.
  • Working 12 hours per day is associated with a 37 percent increased risk of injury.

How Does Fatigue Affect Worker Safety and Health?

Research shows that fatigue can cause weariness, sleepiness, irritability, reduced alertness, impaired decision making, and lack of motivation, concentration, and memory. All of these symptoms can lead to workplace accidents, injuries, and death, not just to the worker, but their coworkers as well. Fatigued workers have shown to be a contributing factor in many workplace accidents, including industrial disasters, health care mistakes, and billions of dollars in lost productivity.

From a medical standpoint, fatigue can contribute to a variety of health problems for workers, including:

  • Depression.
  • Some cancers.
  • Sleep disorders.
  • Poor eating habits/obesity.
  • Heart disease.
  • Stomach and digestive problems.
  • Musculoskeletal disorders.
  • Reproductive problems.
  • Worsening of existing chronic diseases, such as diabetes and epilepsy.

Data reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and a National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) shows that less sleep and longer weekly working hours both contribute to reduced worker health and safety:

  • Workers with sleep problems have a 1.62 times higher risk of injury than workers without sleep problems.
  • Roughly 13 percent of work injuries can be attributed to sleep problems.

Sleep and working hours independently impact injury risk:

  • Reduced sleep increases injury risk regardless of the number of regular hours worked.
  • Increased regular hours worked increases injury risk regardless of the number of normal hours of sleep.
  • Injury rates are highest among workers who generally sleep less than seven hours per day and work more than 40 hours per week.
  • Injury rates peak among workers who regularly get less than five hours of sleep a night and typically work more than 60 hours a week.

How Can Employers Help Prevent Worker Fatigue?

The following are some solutions provided by labor- and employment-related organizations.

Change Policies and Procedures

Companies such as manufacturers and similar businesses often require overtime or extended workdays/weeks with no breaks to meet a deadline or during a naturally busy season. These policies can lead to highly fatigued workers who are a danger to themselves and others. Human health should always come before profits. Companies should hire temporary help when needed instead of relying on tired workers.

Fix the Company Culture

Some company cultures reward those who work longer hours or forego time off. Employees who put their job before their health or safety may even be promoted. Workers may be afraid to take their allowed time off because others do not, or they fear reprisal if a project gets delayed. Cultures like these are dangerous to both health and safety.

Employers should encourage employees to stick to their shifts and take their vacations. They should rotate overtime among the staff to offset fatigue and schedule two consecutive days off.

Change Health Worker Requirements

While health emergencies can happen at any time, medical schools, hospitals, and other medical-related workplaces should rethink the hours they require of workers. A medical resident who has been on the job for three days with little sleep cannot be expected to make the best decisions. A nurse who is required to work overnight and then on days will not have time to readjust their circadian rhythms. Creative staffing that reduces worker fatigue in mind will benefit everyone and reduce Workers’ Compensation claims. Employers should analyze how they can balance workloads and work time more effectively and hire new or temporary staff as needed.

Encourage Breaks

Employers should require employees to use all the time off they are entitled to each year. The workplace itself, especially in medical settings, should be conducive to relaxing breaks and sleep, if that is an expected part of the job. Low humidity, lots of natural light, and cool temperatures can all help reduce employee fatigue.

Train and Educate Workers

Every worker should understand the importance of getting enough good quality sleep. Supervisors and managers should also be trained to spot signs of worker fatigue. Help employees with their sleep issues and encourage them to see their doctors if they have sleep problems.

Cherry Hill Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at DiTomaso Law Can Help You After a Workplace Accident

Your workplace can be the source of fatigue, leading to injuries, illnesses, and death. If you have been injured at work and need help with a claim, contact one of our Cherry Hill Workers’ Compensation lawyers at DiTomaso Law for legal help. Call us at 856-414-0010 or contact us online to schedule a free consultation. Located in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout South Jersey, including Mt. Holly, Camden County, and Vineland.

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