One of the fundamental aspects of a job as a health and safety professional is to ensure that an employer has identified and assessed its workplace hazards, and put into place proper controls to either eliminate or reduce those hazards. Basic Safety 101 . . . correct? We have our inspection checklists, our risk matrices, our risk determination criteria, and off we go. But have we really identified all the risks to workers? A hazard you may not have considered in your assessment is worker fatigue.

If you ask someone at work how they are doing and they respond, “OK, just tired,” what do you think? We may associate tiredness with working too much, but generally we think they’re just not getting enough sleep. Normally we don’t sit and ponder the reason why. We tend to think getting enough rest is a personal responsibility.

But it may not be that simple. What if your employees work in shifts, or consistently work overtime? How do you manage the risk of fatigue and why should you, as an employer, care about worker fatigue?

Fatigue is considered a symptom because it is a subjective feeling: someone feels tired. There are different types of fatigue, such as physical or mental fatigue. Physical fatigue occurs when one’s muscles don’t perform at an optimal level. Mental fatigue can affect cognitive performance. The upside of fatigue is that it can be alleviated by periods of rest. The downside of fatigue is that it may result in worker errors due to a reduced ability to focus on the work at hand, underestimation of risk or reduced coordination. These errors may cause accidents resulting in injuries and health problems, and may cause an organization to experience a downturn in production.

Worker fatigue at a workplace may be the result of excessive working times, rotating shifts or working at night. One third of the Canadian labour force does not work a regular daytime shift. Working in the evening, at night and in rotating shifts has the greatest potential to disturb sleeping patterns and disrupt circadian rhythms. This can lead to fatigue.

Under health and safety legislation, an employer is required to acquaint workers and their supervisors with any hazards in the workplace. Employers need to consider that fatigue may be a hazard to employees who work on rotating shifts. Fatigue needs to be identified, assessed and controlled like any other workplace hazard, taking into consideration the employer’s need for increased production, or a worker’s willingness to work extra hours or additional shifts. An employer may already be following the minimum requirements for work hours set out by employment standards legislation, but an assessment should be completed to ensure it is sufficient in addressing the risk of fatigue in the organization.

After assessing the risk of fatigue at your worksite, employers should create a policy or program to address and manage the fatigue. There are many controls an organization may implement. A few may include developing roles and responsibilities for both employers and employees, training supervisors to recognize the symptoms of fatigue and on the steps to take if they find a worker is fatigued, and developing employee awareness about the symptoms of fatigue.

There is no easy solution to managing fatigue. Customer demands and the willingness of workers to work excessive hours, or to request night shifts due to work-home balance considerations, may present challenges. However, when provided with the proper tools for a risk assessment, an employer can implement controls to reduce the risk of fatigue, ensuring a safer and healthier workplace.