Australian OHS authorities have been struggling for many years to address issues of fatigue in the workplace. Partly this has been because the issue of stress and bullying came to dominate the psycho-social agenda.
The transport industry has pushed fatigue into the unavoidable hazard basket. New South Wales’ experience with this issue has been particularly interesting and continues to do so. France’s experiment with a maximum set of working hours, partly on the grounds of occupational health and safety, has proven to be a brave experiment. The Australian Trade Unions’ campaign on “reasonable hours” had safety echoes.
But, as with so many long-term OHS initiatives, Australia waited until England’s Health & Safety Executive (HSE) did all the leg work before tailoring fatigue guidelines to its own circumstances. At least this guideline acknowledges the HSE’s work.
On 4 August 2008, WorkSafe Victoria and WorkCover New South Wales published their guidelines on “Fatigue – Prevention in the Workplace”. As far as it goes, it is a good addition to OHS information and, if its existence is publicised sufficiently, should place fatigue on the radar of OHS professionals. Prior to this guide, the only fatigue information that WorkSafe produced was concerning fatigue in the forestry industry in March 2004! – hardly something that any other industry would see as relevant to themselves.
It is worth comparing some of the basic concepts that the OHS regulators have put forward.
The differing definitions reflect the perceptions of the OHS regulators, the state of knowledge at the time, the approach taken by the organisation consulted in the development of the guidances, they anticipate the level of resources allocated to the promotion and enforcement of fatigue management. The contrast between the Victorian “definitions” of 2004 and 2008 are particularly marked.
Guidelines only go so far and then it is up to business to consider the advice and decide what to do. The success of the new fatigue guideline won’t be in evidence for several years and, of course, that relies on the very dim chance of anyone undertaking an assessment of the guideline at all.
There are several issues that I think should be considered when reading the new guidance:
The role of the second job.
Second jobs, often undertaken by shift workers are assessed, if at all, for potential conflicts of interest. The impediment in being “fit for work” in the principal employment is never assessed. This guideline, in a roundabout manner, identifies this risk.
The need for nightshift.
Often nightshift, or specific shift rosters, are traditional structures. “This is the way it has always been done”. The existence of nightshift in every workplace should be reassessed on a regular basis as economic factors change and as knowledge of the extent of harm presented by nightshift accumulates.
Overlap of Human Resources and OHS
I have bleated on for years about the silo mentality of the OHS and HR disciplines. The demarcations have been eroding for ages in the real world of business and this trend has been increases as more and more psychosocial hazards are placed within the OHS context. But the HR professional and the OHS professional continue to speak different languages and with competing agenda.
Fatigue cannot be successfully managed without a common understanding between HR and OHS.
Impairment has been a concept floating around the trade unions for some time and they have never found the right approach to getting this on the OHS agenda. Much of the content in the new fatigue guideline is broader than fatigue and deals with interaction with our employees and colleagues. The guideline clearly identifies issues from outside work that may exacerbate fatigue in the workplace. (That other demarcation between work and non-work hazards does not apply to fatigue)
Fatigue impairs judgement as well as actions. Mental fatigue is applicable to a broader range of occupations than physical fatigue and reaches into occupations that are not familiar with OHS, such as judges and politicians, whose important decisions must not be impaired.
Fatigue should not be one of the workplace hazards that are increasing shuffled off into the miasma that is work/life balance and wellness. It relates directly to the traditional areas of OHS but can only be controlled by non-traditional approaches. There lies the challenge.