Occupational health and safety has many examples of addressing small or short-term issues rather than  facing the difficult and hard, but more sustainable, control measures. I was reminded of this by a recent media statement from the United States Chemical Safety Board (CSB) in relation to fatigue management.

In 2007 the CSB recommended that, following the Texas City refinery fire,

“the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the United Steelworkers International Union (USW) jointly lead the development of an ANSI consensus standard with guidelines for fatigue prevention in the refinery and petrochemical industries.” [links added]

The progress of API and USW in developing the 2010 ANSI-approved Recommended Practice 755 (RP 755) has been reviewed by the CSB staff and they have found the following disturbing problems:

  • “The document was not the result of an effective consensus process, and therefore does not constitute a tool that multiple stakeholders in the industry can “own.” It was not balanced in terms of stakeholder interests and perspectives, and did not sufficiently incorporate or take into account the input of experts from other industry sectors that have addressed fatigue risks.
  • The document lacks explicit requirements in the form of “shall” language for the essential elements of an effective fatigue management system.
  • The document places undue emphasis on “soft” or “personal” components of fatigue control, such as self-evaluation by employees, evaluation by supervisors, and training and education, without supporting scientific evidence of their efficacy.
  • Although the RP requires limits on hours and days at work, the limits are generally more permissive, and therefore less protective, than those suggested by current scientific knowledge. The permissive limits are based on an unproven assumption that implementation of a particular FRMS will “compensate” for the risk from excessive hours and days at work.”

I am not sure of the process for developing a standard by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) but clearly the CSB believes the process failed in the case of RP755. I would ask whether it is not surprising that only a limited pool of  knowledge was tapped when the task was given to a trade union and a representative of one industry sector.  Was recommending the ANSI process with these specific participants a flawed recommendation?  Is there no independent body for establishing a national standard on fatigue management? Perhaps the task is too difficult for anyone?

The CSB is enormously critical of RP755 using “soft” fatigue control measures.  “Soft ” controls are being favoured around the world in relation to psychosocial hazards such as stress and fatigue, partly because the “hard” fatigue controls threaten the existing safety culture of many industries.  Industry is comfortable in the way the workforce is managed.  Industrial relations, human resources and safety rules are largely established, well-known and familiar.  The system still works on the basis of employer-employee economics where money is received for work and effort.  The difficulty arises when workers want more money but cannot increase their hourly rate, the value of their work, and choose to increase wages by increasing the hours worked even though those additional hours may be undertaken in a fatigued and potentially unsafe state.

To truly tackle the risks associated with workplace fatigue, industrial relations, wages rates, maximum hours worked, working environment, fitness for work and a whole range of other very difficult issues need to be addressed or, at least, discussed.  And it is this discussion that the CSB seems to be demanding.  On the “soft” controls the CSB says:

“The basic elements of a fatigue prevention program, however, must still be sufficient staffing and the establishment of preventive limits on hours and days of work, overtime and related measures, along with clear management responsibility for the control of these and other workload risk factors.” (page 5)

The CSB also rips into the belief that “that implementation of a particular FRMS [Fatigue Risk Management System] will “compensate” for the risk from excessive hours and days at work.”

Australia is also unlikely to confront the structural and organisational changes needed to control workplace fatigue but this is largely due to Australia;s workplace safety laws having the “get out of jail free” option of “as far as is reasonably practicable”.  Australian industry does not have to show that a workplace is safe, as most workers would understand it, but only “safe as far as is reasonably practicable”.  Arguments over reasonable practicability will never allow for the types of changes needed to address workplace fatigue.  Businesses could point to workers who will work “unsafe” hours for additional income (what used to be called “danger money”) or could argue that there is a labour or skills shortage in that particular industry sector or geographical areas and there is no alternative but to work excessive hours.

Some OHS regulators in Australia have issued guidances on fatigue management like this one from the Queensland Government from 2011. It addresses excessive working hours and recommends banning overtime adjusting shift rosters but such guidelines are usually considered naive.  They are acknowledged but rarely applied, partly due to the difficulty associated with prosecuting companies on fatigue matters.  Fatigue is often found to be a contributory factor to workplace incidents but rarely a breach of OHS Law in its own right.

The CSB should be congratulated for trying to pursue this issue and scheduling a public meeting about RP755 on April 24 2013.  I forecast that Recommended Practice 755 will be revised and that the process will draw from a broader pool of knowledge on fatigue management. However this is a long way from businesses using the standard and from OHS regulators and others enforcing the standard.

Fatigue management will prove to be the hardest of the workplace  psychosocial issues to address because it not only deals with physical and mental well-being but also the basic economic relationship of work and the financial desires of the workers.

Kevin Jones