Solving the Problem of Worker Fatigue: Blame the Worker?

sleep fatigueSometimes you read stupid stuff and you just want to go back to bed and sleep, sleep, sleep.

And speaking of sleep, Business Insurance has an article this week about the “one of the most frequently overlooked but critical questions to answer in employer safety programs.” The question: how much sleep are employees getting? The problem: serious safety problems caused by worker fatigue.

And fatigue is a serious problem, especially for those in safety-critical jobs, according to the National Safety Council (NSC) which found that 43% of 2,000 workers surveyed reported not getting enough sleep every day. Experts say that not getting enough sleep is the same as being drunk.

OK, so far so good. Fatigue is bad for safety. On that there is general agreement.

But why are workers so fatigued? The NSC points to nine risk factors, and I’ll list them all:

  1. Shift work
  2. High-risk hours
  3. Demanding jobs
  4. Long shifts
  5. Long weeks
  6. Sleep loss
  7. No rest breaks
  8. Quick shift returns
  9. Long commute

I would add a number 10, although that may be included in number 3 or 5: Having more than one job (usually due to low pay.)

Now most of those — I’d say all except maybe number 6 (possibly due to medical problems like sleep apnea) are all related to working conditions imposed by management.

One could argue that number 9 is a matter of worker choice: a worker may choose to live in a nicer area in return for a longer commute. But the fact is that many workers don’t have a choice about how far they commute; they can’t afford to live near work, and the lack of adequate public transportation makes it worse. This Washington Post article about the deteriorating safety net in the South, accompanied by transportation difficulties for low income workers, has haunted me for years:

In the metropolitan areas of the Deep South, government policies and rising real estate prices have pushed the poor out of urban centers and farther from jobs. Low-income people have, in turn, grown more reliant on public transit networks that are among the weakest of quality in the country.

So, given that almost every cause of sleep deprivation cited by the National Safety Council is beyond the control of workers, what is the solution recommended in the article by safety expert Mike Harnett? “Train employees on the importance of sleep and to limit longer shifts.”

Really? Tell me a single one of those nine factors that can be resolved with more employee training. And how does training employers result in shorter shifts? (Harnett is Vice President of Six Safety Systems, by the way, which helpfully offers fatigue management training, and “Fatigue Detection Technology … to detect and measure the operator’s eye movements. The readings are immediately analyzed to determine levels of fatigue and distraction.”)

She also recommends a “questionnaire for workers on sleep habits.” OK, maybe that gets to number 6, but none of the others have anything to do with sleep “habits.”

The bottom line is that questionnaires, more training and “fatigue detection technology” are just a subtle way of blaming workers for the sleep deprivation problem that — from the risk factors listed by the NSC — are mostly the responsibility of management to change.

So what have we learned?

First, it sounds more like employers need the questionnaires and training, not workers.

And second, journalists would be better off looking for “experts” who aren’t also peddling their wares.

Blame the Worker

6 Comments

    1. Thank you. Donate if you feel you need to. Try to keep it under $10,000 though. Paypal has a hard time dealing with anything more.

  1. I would like to respond to the comments made specifically regarding myself. First of all, I did not suggest that training employees is a solution. In fact, I have never said training employees is an solution. What I did say is that employees and their families would benefit from knowing how to optimize their sleep hygiene in order to reduce the cumulative effects of fatigue. But it doesn’t matter what an employee does if their work demands or work schedule does not allow for them to get enough recuperative sleep. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t receive training. It means both are required. I specialize in assisting organizations with setting up fatigue management systems that focus on the flaws in the organization, including all 9 listed by the NSC. In fact, I sent off a tremendous amount of information related to the role industry has to play, but unfortunately, none of that was included in the article and I have no control over that. In regard to attacking my expertise, I have been involved in fatigue management since 1986, when the national railroad I worked for in Canada drove a freight train into a passenger train and killed 23 people. That was the birth of fatigue management in our country, and I spent many months in Washington DC and Michigan learning about a subject matter that was in its infancy. I have a background in human factors and sleep neurobiology. I have provided consulting services all over North America, working with Unions, Government Agencies, standards groups, and the private sector. It might surprise you to know that I was also involved in the Blue Ribbon Panel hosted by the NSC last year on fatigue. I have one goal, and one goal only… to reduce the risks associated with fatigue by working with all stakeholders. Yes, our company offers technology for detection and monitoring of fatigue, but that in and of itself is not a solution and we are clear with that message. It is simply another tool for the toolbox. I will use whatever tools are necessary to help save employees and their families from poor fatigue management. That includes many tools and devices that our company does not carry and has no stock in. Sent with respect.

    1. You’re right that the main problem I had was with the way the article was written. And I’m well aware from personal experience that you have no control over that.

      There is no doubt that fatigue is a major problem in American workplaces and more expertise needs to be applied to addressing fatigue as well as human factors. However, I’m much more focused on the causes of the fatigue and the extent to which fatigue can be prevented by changing the structure of work. Without looking at the causes and ways to prevent fatigue, you’re often only putting a band-aid on the symptoms — and not a very good band-aid.

      So I apologize if I came down too hard on you. I certainly did not mean to impugn your expertise or intentions. But articles like this leave me very frustrated. Thank you for writing.

      1. Apology accepted. Believe it or not, I’m in your camp and understand your frustration. I believe human error is only a symptom, not a cause. I push organizations everyday to step up on the issue of fatigue by addressing work schedule design, job design, task design, environmental improvements, physical workloads, cognitive workloads, etc etc. It’s not just about the worker being fit for duty… it’s about the work fitting the worker. If anything, I hope that our dialogue here helps to push the conversation forward with your followers. Thank you for taking the time to reply. Keep up the good fight!

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