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News stories continue to emerge regarding  fatigue and how it plagues workplaces throughout Australia.It is this important for employers to know how to identify the signs of workplace fatigue.

Defining Workplace Fatigue

Fatigue is a perpetual state of  tiredness that progresses into  mental or physical exhaustion and inhibits workers from effectively functioning  within practical boundaries. Fatigue is far beyond a simple feeling tiredness and drowsiness, it is a physical condition  often occurs when a person meets their physical or mental limits

Fatigue can result from a variety of work or lifestyle related factors or a combination. Some of the work related factors include:

  • insufficient  breaks
  • extensive time of being awake
  • inadequate recovery time between shifts
  • payment incentives that inadvertently encourage working longer shifts
  • environmental conditions (for example, climate, light, noise, workstation design)
  • type of work being undertaken; whether physical or mentally exhausting work.

Lifestyle-factors can include:

  • lack of quality sleep due as a result of sleeping disorders
  • busy social life
  • personal responsibilities
  • additional employment
  • travel (sometimes work time)
  •  nutrition and diet, exercise, pain, illness

Safe Work Australia’s signs of  worker fatigue

  1. Headaches and/or dizziness
  2. Wandering thoughts, daydreaming, lack of concentration
  3. Blurred vision or difficulty keeping eyes open
  4. Constant yawning, a drowsy relaxed feeling or falling asleep at work
  5. Moodiness such as irritability
  6. Short term memory problems
  7. Low motivation
  8. Hallucinations
  9. Impaired decision-making and judgment
  10. Slow reflexes and responses
  11. Reduced immune system function
  12. Increased errors
  13. Extended sleep during days off work
  14. Falling asleep for a few seconds without realising
  15. Drifting in and out of traffic lanes

Sleep is the only effective long term strategy to prevent and manage fatigue. While tired muscles can recover with rest, the brain can only recover with sleep. The most beneficial sleep is a good night’s sleep taken in a single continuous period.

One sleepless night can be  be equated to someone who has been drinking alcohol, for example:

  • being awake for 17 hours is the equivalent of having a blood alcohol level of 0.05
  • being awake for 20 hours is the equivalent of having a blood alcohol level of 0.1

Shift workers (including night work) and fatigue

The body has a natural rhythm that repeats every 24 hours – known as a  ‘body clock’. Our body clock regulates our sleeping patterns, body temperature, hormone levels and digestion.

When the human body clock is interrupted, our alertness suffers which results in feelings of fatigue. This contributes to the risks of making errors and subsequently resulting in accidents and injuries, either in the workplace or travelling to work.

Shift workers are one of the most affected groups of fatigue. Body clock rhythms  have a difficulty in adjusting to shiftwork. In many workplaces shift work, and particularly night work cannot be avoided which increases the need for proactively managed fatigue.

Source: Safe Work Australia draft code of practice on workplace fatigue

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