Occupational Fatigue


Anyone who has pulled an all-nighter or worked two jobs can tell you how stressful not getting enough sleep can be on your body and mind.  While naps can help with momentary alertness, they don’t truly help your body recharge the way a good night’s sleep does.  This can leave you drowsy and unfocused at work, which can lead to accidents in the workplace.  Employers are becoming more aware about how much of a safety issue fatigue can be, and that they need to play a role in helping their workers with the problem.

Fatigue is the body’s response to sleep deprivation or lengthy physical or mental hard work.  Things that can lead to occupational fatigue include long hours, a heavier workload than normal, lack of sleep, environmental factors, and medical conditions.  While it’s normal to feel fatigued if you’re not getting enough sleep, you can be fatigued even when you do technically get enough sleep.  Working for long periods of time without a break can lead to fatigue, and even having to interact with too many people for too long can lead to feeling like you need more sleep than usual.

Effects of fatigue can include slower reaction time, more errors, and decreased cognitive ability.  The estimated annual injury incidence rate is 2.27 out of 100 workers for people who get between 7 and 8 hours of sleep per day; that rate jumps to 7.89 out of 100 workers for those who only get 5 hours or less.  While fatigue can occur in any industry, most studies have been focused on the effect fatigue can have on shift workers, health care workers, and drivers.  Industries where people work long hours, overtime, many days in a row, and when they’re exposed to harsh environmental conditions like working outside in the rain or snow are all industries where there is the highest risk for employees to be fatigued.  People who work more than one job are at more of a risk for fatigue because they experience all this as well as less time to sleep.

The National Safety Council has launched an initiative about fatigue to both gather data to help with identifying solutions for fatigue, and to release a policy toolkit and other resources to help employers.  According to a 2016 study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, about 38% of US workers sleep less than 7 hours a night.  Several studies show that workers who have a sleeping disorder are more likely to be involved in a workplace safety incident, and estimates from a 2010 Cupertino study show that fatigue-related productivity losses cost almost $2,000 per worker each year.  As more employers are seeing the effects of the increased risks and lack of productivity due to fatigue, they’re starting to look more into wellness in the workplace.

Employers can help their employees combat fatigue by offering breaks, scheduling work when employees are most alert, and promoting the importance of sleep.  Having a balanced workload and staffing, proper shift scheduling, training employees on the risks of fatigue and managing sleep disorders, better workplace design, and monitoring of fatigue are all ways employers can help decrease their employees’ risk for injuries due to fatigue.  Recommendations for scheduling include:

  • Having employees work during the day instead of at night.
  • Restricting consecutive day shifts to 5 or 6 days and night shifts to 4 days.
  • Ensuring workers have at least 2 consecutive days off.
  • Making schedules as consistent as possible.
  • Providing frequent breaks during the workday.

While workers should be responsible for being well rested, employers should provide information, motivation, and resources about fatigue, and should take ownership of making sure occupational fatigue isn’t an issue for their employees.

This article was submitted by Randall Eason, Manager, Safety, PSM, Loss Prevention and Product Stewardship of the Augusta, Georgia PCS Nitrogen Fertilizer Plant.