Carter was one of three authors of a 2007 article in The Annals of Occupational Hygiene entitled “Epidemiological Diagnosis of Occupational Fatigue in a Fly-In–Fly-Out Operation of the Mineral Industry” (abstract only available online). The abstract says that:
“A disturbed diurnal rhythm at the beginning of night shift and a roster of more than eight consecutive days were identified as the primary contributing factors to occupational fatigue in this setting.”
It is fair to say night shift and eight consecutive days of work are the causes in this research but research without proposed controls is of little practical use. Thankfully the study by Anthony Carter, Reinhold Muller and Ann Williamson provides some control suggestions – naps and changes to lighting. Simple in concept but possibly difficult to implement. How does a company provide naps in a production line operation? Can production continue as lighting lux levels are reduced?
The research also provides a research methodology that could be applied to identify occupational fatigue in other industries:
“The comprehensive research approach of this study using direct measurements at the individual level can readily be employed in other operations and industries. This approach has the potential to not only generate highly specific strategies to reduce fatigue in the workplace but also to improve the methodologies used to research occupational fatigue which are currently characterized by general (i.e. non-site or staff subgroup specific) prescriptive fatigue management guidelines issued by the companies and mostly developed from an inconclusive descriptive evidence base that addresses outcomes rather than causal or risk factors.”
Although this is one of the many calls for more research, the clear impression provided is that the researchers are keen to replicate this research in those industries that can afford it.
But it is also worth taking a leap to an extreme, out of the reasonably practicable to the hazard elimination. The research above, as well as other research quoted elsewhere in the SafetyAtWorkBlog, provides strong evidence that night shift can be hazardous. It is fair to ask if there is any benefit to the night shift workers by achieving a reasonably practicable level of safety? This may reduce the health and injury risks to the worker but the workers carry the physical and psychosocial risks. The companies carry the monetary risk. Which risk is more important depends on one’s position in the management structure.
In many ways the assessment of night shift and shift roster risks always focusses on tweaking the mental conditions of the worker to fit with the necessity of night shift but is night shift necessary? At what point is it reasonably practicable to move night shift to a different roster, one which allows for adequate sleep and daylight?
That few companies genuinely consider this potential control measure on the basis of shift worker health indicates the powerless role of many safety managers in the corporate structure.
It may also indicate the equivocation that many safety professionals encounter as they climb that corporate structure (but still seem to end up on the organisational chart below Risk Management or human Resources). We hear many cases of union health and safety reps putting safety principles before their career but rarely do we hear of equivalent action in the higher levels.
A significant element of safety management that is often overlooked particularly by those labour lawyers who delude themselves on the universality of the law, the level of “reasonably practicable” varies depending on one’s position in that org chart. Only lawyers believe that the “corporate mind” is a uniform consistent concept where all agree.
Outside of the court system, OHS regulators are expecting companies and managers to incorporate “the reasonable man” concept into preventative safety management – an ugly fit and a contested fit. Does the production line worker or underground miner share the same values as the senior executives? Is working on a guillotine with a faulty interlock the same as a long meeting on the 16th floor of a skyscraper?
It is no coincidence that the growing influence of “reasonably practicable” in safety law has coincided with a waning of trade union influence in the workplace. That waning influence has reduced the opportunities for a contrary, dissident interpretation of “reasonably practicable” in safety deliberations. In Australia, New South Wales is the last bastion of absolute safety in the move to national harmonisation under the reasonably practicable banner.
In short, is it reasonably practicable to have humans working contrary to their natures and physiology?
The research quoted above is fascinating but it is undertaken in the dominant corporate, social and economic contexts of work. Perhaps there should be more research aim at piercing that context and which may provide a more humanitarian approach to safety.