Being fatigued is not unlike being high from alcohol, marijuana, or illegal substances. Studies have shown that getting less than 5 hours of sleep or staying awake for over 16 hours is like being intoxicated. 21 hours without sleep is similar to a BAC level of .08, the legal limit in the U.S. It is important to note that individual workers vary in how they are impacted by fatigue, so an employer needs to consider each function and worker differently.
If you’ve ever experienced prolonged periods without adequate sleep or extreme stress in your life, you know how it can affect your ability to concentrate at work. Fatigue can affect concentration, slow reaction times, and impair decision-making – all leading to increased risk of accidents.
The consequences of accidents caused by fatigue are well-documented
Fatigue accidents are a common phenomenon. Workers with sleep problems are 62% more likely to experience a work-related injury1. The National Transportation Safety Board reports that fatigue was the probable cause in 20% of crashes investigated. Fatigue was attributed to some of the most costly disasters in the world including the nuclear accident at Chernobyl and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It’s no wonder the U.S. National Safety Council reports that a typical employer with 1,000 employees can expect to lose more than $1 million a year due to fatigue.2
How risky is fatigue to the average person and their workplace?
Being fatigued is not unlike being high from alcohol, marijuana, or illegal substances. Studies have shown that getting less than 5 hours of sleep or staying awake for over 16 hours is like being intoxicated3. 21 hours without sleep is roughly equivalent to a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of .08, the legal limit in the U.S. Being at or above this level would subject you to Driving Under the Influence (DUI). It is important to note that individual workers vary in how they are impacted by fatigue, so an employer needs to consider each function and worker differently.
Managing fatigue in the workplace
While it is beyond the scope of this article to address the many aspects of a fatigue risk management system (FRMS), it is important to note that an effective FRMS needs to take into account the nuances of different working environments, job functions, and schedules. A system should monitor risk, anticipate fatigue areas, and alter processes and schedules accordingly over time. The overarching goal is to reduce risk brought on by fatigue. Technology can play a part in this program but the chief focus needs to be on tailoring the program to the specific workplace.
How technology can support a fatigue prevention program
The last decade has brought new technology solutions to high-risk jobs like trucking, mining and manufacturing. These tools help managers understand fatigue trends in the workforce, track patterns and irregularities, and even anticipate which time periods are high-risk. They include wearables, fixed position devices, apps, and computer applications. Wearables options are numerous, from smartwatches to drowsiness detection glasses and headgear. However, without a centralized system to record patterns and monitor a workforce, they lack context for making systematic adjustments.
Six important factors to consider when choosing fatigue monitoring technology
Before you begin to evaluate the right tools and systems, determine how you would incorporate the technology into your existing work protocols and systems. Would this be intrusive to workers? Would they readily adopt the change or does it need to be mandated? If you will be collecting data, think about how to collect this and integrate it into data you already have to provide a deeper picture. Consider these important factors:
Sensitivity and accuracy – Does the device offer more conclusions than “Safe” or “Not Safe” readings? How consistent are the measures? Users will be de-incentivized to use the device if it gives false readings when they know they are impaired or not impaired.
Scientific validity – Has the device been recognized by well-known, reputable institutions or safety councils? Are there scientific research papers validating the device vendor’s technological claims? Be aware of advertising claims that are not founded on science and proven data.
Reliability – Put the device through rigorous testing or get testimonials to its durability and consistency. Does it work in all your environments? If the device consists of software, test for bugs. If it is hardware, examine how long before it needs to be replaced.
User-friendliness – Many great inventions have failed because the actual users rejected it. Will workers accept using the device? How cumbersome is it? Does it impact their privacy? Employers need to maintain trust so the solution must not infringe either privacy or trust.
Time lag and alerts – In circumstances where immediate results are critical, a device that provides a real-time score or alert immediately can be important. Certainly this is the case with driving and heavy machinery. Does the device alert both the manager and the user to a problem? A good device should fit into the company communication lines.
Cost – Safety is not an area to cut corners, but the overall cost of a technology solution needs to be considered, particularly for large-scale deployment. How many devices will be needed? What’s the pricing model? Can the solution detect other cognitive or motor impairments besides fatigue such as illness, injury, or drug and alcohol intoxication?
Consider a pilot program before committing resources
Before committing an organization or workplace to a safety technology, doing a pilot test with the technology is a prudent approach. This will not only allow managers and users to become familiar with the device, a pilot test will provide insight into how it would be incorporated into existing protocols how those protocols might change for the better, and how you should work through any issues that might jeopardize wide-scale adoption. Providers of technology should allow for a low-cost pilot to a small group within the organization to determine the fit.
Impairment Science offers a proven, cost-effective solution to workplace fatigue
Druid, the neuroscience app and monitoring system, has multiple scientific studies backing its efficacy, accuracy and sensitivity to detecting impairment. Druid can provide workplace safety managers with an early warning system for any kind of impairment.
Author: Christopher Bensley
1 Uehli K, Mehta A, Miedinger D, et al. Sleep problems and work injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sleep Med Rev. 2014; 18(1):61-73.
2 2021 National Safety Council.
3 A M Williamson, Anne-Marie Feyer, Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance, Occup Environ Med 2000;57:649–655.