How Does Workplace Fatigue Impact Safety?

Research shows that workplace fatigue can seriously impact worker safety and lead to increases in workplace accidents.


How Does Workplace Fatigue Impact Safety?

Research shows that workplace fatigue can seriously impact workplace safety and lead to increases in accidents. What is fatigue and can the effects of fatigue be mitigated? Let’s examine some of the safety risks.


What is fatigue?

Fatigue is simply the state of feeling tired. Fatigue can take many different forms, making you feel sleepy, weary or overtired. It can be caused by many different factors, like insufficient sleep, long hours of extended mental and physical activity, sleep disorders or prolonged periods of stress and anxiety.

The effectiveness of sleep cannot be overstated. The effects of fatigue cost companies $1,200 to $3,100 per employee annually in lost productivity. According to the National Safety Council, It is estimated that overall, employers lose $136 billion a year from workplace fatigue. Additionally, more than 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder.


There are two types of fatigue:

  • Acute fatigue occurs from short-term sleep loss or from engaging in prolonged mental or physical activities. It is remedied by getting more sleep and more rest.1
  • Chronic fatigue is a form of fatigue that lasts more than six months and isn’t quite as severe as acute fatigue. People suffering from long-term fatigue are excessively tired, have a hard time functioning in their daily lives and often have symptoms that mimic the flu.

How Could Workplace Fatigue Affect Me?

Although it is hard to objectively measure and quantify the symptoms of fatigue, research shows that workplace fatigue can seriously impact worker safety and lead to increases in workplace accidents. An employee who is experiencing workplace fatigue might not be able to react as quickly in an emergency, communicate important information to coworkers or even work productively.

The major signs of workplace fatigue usually fall into three main categories: physical, mental/performance and emotional.


  • Physical signs of fatigue include sleepiness, yawning, heavy eyelids, rubbing of eyes, micro-sleeps (accidental and unnoticed periods of sleep that last anywhere from 1 to 30 seconds), loss of appetite, digestive issues, and higher susceptibility to illness.

  • Mental/performance signs of fatigue include a difficulty in focusing, slowed reaction times, forgetfulness, poor recall, flawed logic, increases in risk taking and incorrectly performing tasks.

  • Emotional signs of fatigue include feelings of depression, anxiety, irritability and moodiness.


workplace fatigue

When am I at risk?

People are at the highest risk of workplace fatigue whenever the body’s natural circadian rhythm is disrupted. This often occurs in shift workers and people who work the night shift. Extended hours of work also put workers at a higher risk of being affected by fatigue. 


The hours when the risk of workplace accidents are highest are between midnight and 6 a.m. (particularly between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m.) and 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Workplace accidents are also more likely to occur during shift changes and when breaks have not been taken in several hours.


Certain work environments amplify the effects of workplace fatigue. These include workplaces with dim lighting, noisy surroundings, warm temperatures and comfortable environments. In addition to this, workers who perform boring, repetitive and monotonous tasks are at a higher risk of workplace fatigue. This is also true of workers who perform difficult tasks that require a high level of attention and detail.


What can I do to protect myself?

  • Get high-quality sleep
    • An average person needs between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night, or per 24-hour cycle. Although sleep is most beneficial when obtained in a single block, a number of short sleeps is better than none. To get as much restful sleep as possible, it is important to control your environment:
    • Use dark shades to keep light out or use a sleeping mask if necessary.
    • Reduce noise by turning off phones and answering machines or by wearing earplugs.
    • Sleep in a cooler environment, which means using an air conditioner or fan in the summer.
    • Keep a consistent sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up around the same time each day.
    • Night shift workers should go to sleep within an hour of when they get home.
  • Avoid stimulants
    • Avoiding stimulants like alcohol, nicotine and caffeine will help improve your sleep. Although alcohol will make you fall asleep faster, it actually results in a lower quality sleep, causing you to feel less rested when you wake up. While caffeine might not prevent you from falling asleep initially, you might find yourself awake and restless two to three hours later.5 Both of these stimulants are also diuretics, substances that flush water from your system, and will make you more likely to wake up to use the washroom.
  • Proper diet & exercise
    • Proper nutrition, stress control and regular exercise can also help fight fatigue. A healthy diet that is high in complex carbohydrates and low in simple carbohydrates, fatty foods and junk foods will give you more energy. Regular exercise can also energize you; this may include cardiovascular workouts, strength training and increasing your flexibility.
  • Take Breaks
    • If you know you have a long shift ahead of you, make sure you take all of your scheduled breaks. Moving around, getting fresh air or going for a short walk can all help fight fatigue. If possible, make sure your work tasks are short, varied throughout the shift and are not monotonous.

What Should I Do if I Feel Tired When I Arrive for My Shift?

·         To minimize risk, use a buddy system. Check in with each other to ensure everyone is coping with work hours and demands.

·         Watch yourself and your coworkers for signs of workplace fatigue — like yawning, difficulty keeping your eyes open, and difficulty concentrating. When you see something, say something to your coworkers so you can prevent workplace injuries and errors.

·         Find out if your employer has a formal program to help you manage workplace fatigue. Read information about the program and ask questions so you fully understand your employer’s policies and procedures for helping employees manage workplace fatigue.

·         Report any workplace fatigue-related events or close-calls to a manager to help prevent injuries and errors.

·         Do not work if your workplace fatigue threatens the safety of yourself or others. Report to a manager when you feel too tired to work safely.


What Steps Should Employers Take to Help Their Workers Combat Workplace Fatigue?

·         Recognize that these are stressful and unusual time and risk for workplace fatigue may be increased.

·         Create a culture of safety with clear coordination and communication between management and workers. This can include establishing Workplace Fatigue Risk Management Systems or strategies for fatigue mitigation on the job.

·         Spot the signs and symptoms of workplace fatigue in yourself and your employees and take steps to mitigate fatigue-related injury or error.

o  The Epworth Sleepiness Scale is a short survey that can be posted in a common area for workers to quickly rate their workplace fatigue.

o  Create a procedure that does not punish workers for reporting when they, or their coworkers, are too fatigued to work safely. Build it into team comradery as an example of how management and staff can support each other.

o  Develop processes to relieve a worker from their duties if they are too fatigued to work safely.

§  If available, and agreeable with workers, consider assigning workers who are just starting their shifts onto safety-critical tasks.

§  If possible, rotate workers or groups of workers through tasks that are repetitive and/or strenuous. Tools or workstations that are unavoidably shared need to be properly cleaned and disinfected between usage.

§  If possible, schedule physically and mentally demanding workloads and monotonous work in shorter shifts and/or during day shifts.

·         Provide information for workers on the consequences of sleep deprivation and resources to assist workers manage fatigue.

·         Allow staff enough time to organize their off-duty obligations and get sufficient rest and recovery.

·         If rotating shift work is needed, use forward rotations (day to evening to night) and provide staff with sufficient notice when scheduling, particularly if there is a shift change.

·         Avoid scheduling staff for more than 12 hours, if possible.

·         Formalize and encourage regularly scheduled breaks in clean and safe areas. Recognize the need for additional time for increased hand hygiene and putting on and taking off required personal protective equipment (PPE).

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