Workplace fatigue came under the spotlight of late after two recent developments in the transportation sector were found to be fatigue-related.
An investigation report published on March 14 by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada concluded that fatigue had likely led to a minor marine accident in which a diesel tanker made bottom contact on October 14, 2014. The master ordered the helmsman to turn port, but the latter turned starboard instead and the helmsman did not turn the boat the correct way until 51 seconds after the initial order. The investigation determined that both the master and helmsman had been experiencing fatigue at the time and that fatigue management aboard the tanker had been ineffective.
Earlier this year, a rail safety inspector with Transport Canada (TC) issued an order to Canadian Pacific Railway Company (CP), citing worker fatigue as a significant hazard on rail lines and demanding that the company change freight-train lineups and fatigue-management practices on certain British Columbia runs.
Lewis Smith, a communications coordinator with the Canada Safety Council in Ottawa, says fatigue can exacerbate the risks already inherent in hazardous jobs. “You see a lot of lack of attention to detail, or sort of cutting corners to avoid extra work or the extra effort needed to make sure that things are being done safely,” Smith says.
Although lack of sleep is the most obvious cause of workplace fatigue, worksites with dim lighting can worsen the problem, Smith notes. Unusually warm or loud environments can also contribute to fatigue, while improper nutrition can interfere with a worker’s circadian rhythms.
Rachel Morehouse, a member of the Canadian Sleep Society and a professor who researches sleep and mood disorders at Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick in Saint John, says fatigue is common in industries that rely on 24-hour business cycles, especially healthcare and long-haul trucking. Morehouse notes that doctors and nurses lose their ability to function when they are on duty for periods as long as 16, 24 or 36 hours. “Humans just weren’t designed that way,” she says.
Common symptoms of fatigue on the job include continual tiredness and mood-related effects. “You do see people who tend to get either more depressive, more irritable or giddy. Those are the most overtly visible signs,” Smith says.
Fatigued employees cannot approach routine tasks with full alertness. “If you can’t remember things, and if you are not sharp, you can’t react quickly,” Morehouse says.
Last train to Snoozeville
As for the CP case, operations inspector Todd Horie wrote in a letter dated January 14 to CP that train crews were required to do the following: report for duty at away-from-home terminals’ rest facilities before their shifts began, forcing them to allow time for transit to the terminals; follow revised orders after cancellations without sufficient rest between service times; and anticipate train calls with inaccurate train lineups. As a result, workers were deprived of rest necessary to perform at peak ability, Horie charged.
Horie’s letter also included orders to take into consideration transit time to and from rest facilities at away-from-home terminals in crews’ on-duty hours, allow extended-service-run crews to schedule up to eight hours of rest after cancellations and improve the accuracy of train lineups so that employees know when their next shifts begin.
A former CP employee in British Columbia, who asked to remain anonymous, says fatigue has been a serious issue with the railway for a long time, and many employees rarely know when they will be at work. “You go to sleep, you get up, and then you are not going to work for another 10 hours, and by then, you get tired. You are ready to go to sleep, but you have got to go to work.”
Douglas Finnson, president of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, which represents CP employees from its Ottawa headquarters, says he and the union have been fighting fatigue in the rail industry for decades. He adds that the Teamsters set up a fatigue-management system for rail workers in Calgary in the 1990s. “It is still running in Calgary to this day, although CP was able to get rid of it for half the employees.”
Smith advises employers to educate their staff on best practices to prevent fatigue, especially exercise, proper nutrition, stress control and sufficient sleep.
Morehouse suggests that employers should recognize their employees’ physical limits more, as safety risks come into play when work hours become too long, too often.
“We are human, and we are designed for approximately 16 hours of continuous wakefulness followed by approximately eight hours of sleep,” she says. “And so when you go against it, that is when you get problems.”
Jeff Cottrill is editor of Canadian Occupational Health & Safety News.