As a discipline for study, fatigue still seems to be in its early days and this presents a challenge for safety professionals and researchers. Everyone knows what fatigue is because at some time we all suffer it, but try to define it and it is different things to different people.
Transport Safety Victoria (TSV), a division of the Department of Transport, brought together three speakers on the issue of fatigue management in early August 2011. The public seminar provided a good indication of the complexity of the occupational issue of fatigue management.
The first revelation in the seminar came from Dr Paula Mitchell who stressed that fatigue cannot be self-assessed. Researchers are struggling to create a widely accepted indicator for fatigue. There is no blood alcohol reading device for fatigue and the Independent Transport Safety Regulator in July 2010 expressed caution on the application of the bio-mathematical fatigue model.
The challenge is exacerbated by different perceptions of fatigue. Wiktionary offers these synonyms, some I had to look up:
The word that is missing from this list and the one that safety professionals and managers should examine closely and keep in mind is “impairment”. Impairment is most familiar in the OHS discipline from workers compensation definitions but the term needs to be reclaimed. SafetyAtWorkBlog’s definition of impairment is the difficulty in making decisions due to psychosocial factors. (Other suggestions are very welcome)
Fatigue is a contributory factor to impairment, just as is depression, stress, alcohol and drugs, workload and a range of other personal and social factors. All of these pressures need to be addressed in the work environment in order to produce a worker who is fit for work and is in a mental state where the likelihood of being injured, through poor decision-making, is minimised.
The TSV seminar understandably focussed on the risks for rail and tram drivers as this is the area where catastrophic risks exist but some of the information provided applied equally to other areas of the industry, such as maintenance crew. The report, based on work at Network Rail in the UK, by Fiona Kenvyn was perhaps the most widely applicable. The UK rail industry has managed fatigue for many years principally through shift limitations imposed after the inquiry into the Clapham Junction Accident in December 1988 conducted by Anthony Hidden QC. (These limits are referred to colloquially as the “Hidden limits” – during the seminar some of us could not understand why the limits were hidden if the industry, as a whole, used them)
Controlling fatigue through prescriptive working hours may work for a particular industry or company but the restriction of working hours in a broad social context, as France tried, has a poor track record for contemporary societies. But then fatigue management was not the primary motivation in the minds of the French politicians at the time.
In a conference paper* (not available online) provided at the seminar, Kenvyn, and colleagues, say that a more rounded approach to fatigue management is required that includes greater focus on roster design and a greater application of risk assessment.
Roster design, or control of working hours, is the ultimate aim, but risk assessment is more problematic. The fluffiness that often accompanies risk assessment may be part of the reason for the longevity of the “Hidden limits” in the rail industry, even though legislation has moved on from such prescription. Prescriptive safety controls are attractive because they make compliance clear. Gaining compliance may not be easy but there is a point where compliance can be reached. Fatigue however, and any of the psychosocial hazards in fact, is different for everyone. There are different tolerances, there are different symptoms and, from the information at the seminar, it is difficult to know when we are too tired to work safely. So how can such an amorphous hazard be controlled?
Perhaps it just cannot be controlled, as the individual variances mentioned in the previous paragraph can apply to any psychosocial hazard at work. Perhaps researchers are focussing too narrowly and “impairment” should be the universe within which the various psychosocial researches exist.
* “Fatigue management in the UK rail industry: Practical challenges in enhancing a fatigue management strategy” by Fiona Kenvyn, Nuno Cebola & Theresa Clarke