How to recognise the signs of and deal with fatigue.

What is fatigue?

Fatigue is more than feeling drowsy. At work, fatigue is a state of exhaustion which can be both mental and physical. Fatigue reduces a person’s ability to do their job safely, and decreases performance and productivity.

Fatigue is often caused by a number of combined factors, including:

  • the demands of work
  • work scheduling and planning
  • environmental conditions
  • dehydration: symptoms of which include cracked lips, flushed face, dizziness, cramps or headaches)
  • drugs/alcohol/medication
  • the type of work activity: such as a noisy environment or using vibrating tools
  • poor diet, a lack of exercise, disrupted sleep
  • poor emotional wellbeing or stress

Identifying fatigue as a risk

To figure out if fatigue could be a hazard at your work, it’s vital to recognise mood, alertness, sleepiness, task performance and focus.

To assess the fatigue risk, ask yourself and record:

Who is likely to be at risk of fatigue and where?

  • How often is fatigue likely to occur?
  • What degree of harm could it cause?
  • Are any existing control measures effective?
  • What action should be taken to control and monitor the risk of fatigue in yourself and others?
  • How urgently is the control needed?

 Signs someone may be fatigued 

 Mood  irritable, uncommunicative,  frustrated, disengaged, late for  work or doesn’t show up
 Alertness  slurs speech, rubs eyes,  yawning, appears tired
 Performance  cuts corners, takes risks,  clumsy, forgetful, makes  mistakes,  poor  decision  making and judgement
 Focus  loses the big picture, misses  warning signs, has a fixed  gaze,  blurry vision, lack of  focus

 Preventing fatigue 

  • Work scheduling and planning:
    • Take regular breaks and consider extra breaks if the work is demanding.
    • If you need to work longer hours, consider staggered start and finish times, and longer breaks and periods off work.
    • Think about how you schedule your work - a person’s ability to be alert is not constant throughout the day. For most people, low points occur between 3.00am and 5.00am, and between 3.00pm and 5.00pm. During these times, try to avoid doing tricky or dangerous jobs.
    • Monitor and place limits around overtime. Avoid incentives to work too many hours. If night work is required, limit the number of night shifts in a row that your employees can work. Also place limits around shift swapping and on-call duties - regular sleeping patterns help prevent fatigue.
    • Try to create a positive environment with good relationships.

  • Mental and physical demands of work:
    • Use the right tools and resources for the job.
    • Use low-vibration hand-held tools and where practical install low-vibration seats in machinery.
    • Rotate tasks between workers.
    • Stay hydrated and avoid drinks with caffeine.
    • Make sure workloads and deadlines are realistic.
  • Environmental conditions:
    • Avoid working during extreme heat or cold.
    • Provide shelter and facilities for breaks. 

How much sleep do I need?

You should aim for between 7.5 to 8.5 hours a night. But to work out your optimal sleep time, try the following on your next holiday:

  • Put your alarm clock away and wake up naturally for at least two days to overcome cumulative sleep loss.
  • Then for the next three or four days, write down how many hours you sleep.
  • Divide the total number of hours you have slept by the number of days – this is how much sleep you need to maintain optimal alertness, performance and wellbeing.

Get the whole team on board

Develop a fatigue policy which includes details on the maximum shift length, average weekly hours, and travel time. Make sure everyone is aware of the policy, how to recognise fatigue and how to report risks and incidents.

For more information, check out the fatigue guide and use the fatigue score calculator. The fatigue calculator may be used as a guide to calculate and identify early risks of fatigue.


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