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How dangerous is workplace fatigue?

Photo shows a man in a suit sleeping by an alarm clockExhausted employees are bad for business, and today's employers are paying the price. Although workplace fatigue can be just as dangerous as drinking on the job, it's surprisingly common in many modern industries. Today in the United Kingdom, for example, at least 3.5 million people work irregular hours in 24-hour industries like healthcare, transport, and emergency services. In workplaces that must be constantly staffed, employers don't always balance productivity demands with every shift worker's physical and mental needs. The result is workplace fatigue.

Of course, millions of other UK employees may be overworked or sleep-deprived for other reasons. Rest is a basic need, but workplace fatigue is a common phenomenon, and its effects range from mild loss of focus to severe injury and even death. Fortunately, employers can take steps to minimize this risk and keep their employees well-rested, safe, and productive at work.

What Causes Workplace Fatigue?

Emergency medical personnel, truck drivers, and factory inspectors are among the workers who keep the UK running 24 hours a day. At workplaces that must be constantly staffed, sleep patterns are constantly interrupted, and managing staff fatigue is often part of safety protocol. However, shift workers aren't the only employees at risk of workplace fatigue. Fatigue also affects employees who got enough sleep but worked long or hard hours.

Workplace fatigue is defined as a state of "weariness" caused by insufficient rest, a heavy workload, inadequate amounts of sleep, or prolonged work. Overworked employees may or may not be shift employees, but their ability to rest and refuel is ultimately interrupted by some external factors. For example, an employees may be tired because they worked unusually long shifts, or sleep apnea or insomnia disturbed their sleep cycle at home. 

Fatigue-related workplace accidents are more common during night shifts, when employees' biological clocks are at odds with their professional responsibilities. Accidents are also more likely when employees don't take enough breaks during long shifts, and when employees work multiple shifts in a row without going home. No matter what causes workplace fatigue, the effects are the same: employees cannot function at maximum capacity.

How Does Fatigue Affect the Body?

The human body needs a certain amount of sleep to function normally. Without proper rest, cognitive functions and coordination skills begin to deteriorate, much like they would during a night of drinking. In fact, after 17 sleepless hours, the average person makes as many workplace mistakes as they would with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05.

If the employee stayed awake for 21 hours, their workplace performance would compare to someone with a BAC of 0.08. As they stayed awake longer, their body would surpass the legal limit and begin to simulate the effects of intoxication. These effects include dulled senses, reduced communication skills, forgetfulness, inability to stay awake, reduced reaction times, inability to handle stressful situations, decreased productivity, and increased desire to take risks.

The Workplace Risk Factor

Obviously, the physical and cognitive effects of fatigue aren't ideal for any workplace. No one will work better, faster, or more safely when they're sleep-deprived. However, these individual consequences are hard to quantify. It's easy for employers to underestimate the impact of workplace fatigue on their individual employees, but what about the impact on their budget?

Every year in the UK, fatigue costs between £115 and £240 million in workplace accidents alone. It also causes a fifth of all auto accidents on major roads. When employees don't get enough sleep, they have slower reaction times and shorter attention spans. They underestimate risks, forget important details, and have poor coordination skills.

This combination of risks on the job could be catastrophic. Even if an employee doesn't handle heavy machinery, they increase their likelihood of calling in sick or getting injured. From higher medical bills and absentee rates to lower productivity and creativity, workplace fatigue is simply too costly to condone.

What to Do About Workplace Fatigue

So, what is the solution to workplace fatigue? There are many ways to combat fatigue in the workplace, but the best way is to make sure employees get enough rest. Employers should carefully manage the working hours of each employee, ensuring everyone has enough time to acclimate to new schedules. The HSE Fatigue and Risk Index helps employers assess each employee's individual risks and working patterns, making it possible to create shift schedules that minimize fatigue risks for everyone.

Of course, fatigue isn't limited to the sleep-deprived. Any employee can lose energy throughout the workday, especially those who perform monotonous or intensive manual tasks. Employers might provide overtime workers with comfortable places to rest, for example, and refuel employees with prepared meals.

Sitting still all day will also interrupt the body's natural rhythms and cause fatigue. To reduce workplace fatigue for sedentary office workers, employers can provide a stimulating, well-lit work environment with ergonomic work stations. Seating should provide plenty of support and accommodate a healthy sitting posture, but employees should also have space to move around freely.

Rise And Shine

Workplace fatigue is a real problem, but tired employees aren't inevitable in any industry. When employers are aware of the causes and risks associated with tired workers, they can take steps to prevent dangerous consequences. By managing shift schedules wisely, creating safe and stimulating environments, and noticing the early symptoms of fatigue, employers can promote safe, fatigue-free workplaces, and reap the benefits of more productive employees.


Safety 1 Industries is a provider of high quality safety storage, safety protection and spill prevention products.

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