CSB pushes for a more effective discussion on fatigue management

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

reservoir, victoria, australia

7 thoughts on “CSB pushes for a more effective discussion on fatigue management”

  1. Even though fatigue management may have a small economic impact as workers will be asked to head home and rest, over time it will pay off. Working while fatigued leads to lower productivity levels and increases the risk of an accident happening on the job.

  2. Interestingly, discussions relating to fatigue and fatigue management rarely, if ever, take into consideration the excessive hours that many managers and executives work. I\’d say it\’s because of the culture that hard and long hours are actually rewarded in our society and those who stick to the \”8 hour day\” are treated as lazy. But back to those that are doing the excessive hours. These managers and executives are the ones making operational decisions. These operational decisions can have dire consequences when they are made by managers who have already worked excessive hours, not to mention the health risks they are also put under.

  3. As an addendum to my previous comment. Where are the unions in all of this? It would seem that the days of old when a Union saw its workers being treated with contempt to a point of serious injury or death, the Union Hierarchy would be on the streets demanding incorporation of strict rules enshrined in awards to combat this type of employer tyranny and lack of care.

    The current legislation in all states is treated with contempt or ignorance is the order of the day and the authorities fiddle and under resource the regulatory bodies to a point of absurdity in having any regulatory body in existence at all.

    Maybe safety at work needs to be made part of every award so it can be pursued mercilessly by the Unions where it is found wanting.

  4. Entrenched interests will always dictate policy to suit themselves, with a few motherhood statements thrown in to sooth the troubled beasts of discontent and so it shall always be.

  5. At the risk of making a troll-type comment, I\’ve been intrigued that medical researchers possess the expert knoweldge about fatigue and cognitive impairment, but put someone in charge of deciding on life-changing medication and label them \’junior doctor\’ and they can work for 28 hours straight, no worries.

  6. Morning Kevin;

    The overwhelming argument in fatigue management focuses on hours worked over a given period. It ignores (to a large extent) work loading and environmental factors. Sitting in an air conditioned office for 12 hours with my feet up is remarkably different to conducting geosurveys in 45 degree heat. Yet most \’policies\’ focus on hours worked.

    The subjective argument for fatigue assessment has to be a failure in any industry. The first line of defence in this approach is \”How are you feeling?\” How the individual states they are feeling is irrelevant. But how do we ask anyone \”Are you cognitively impaired?\”

    I like the idea of a Wii arrangement as it can assess a variety of responses with relative objectivity. It would be challenging to see this in practice.

    If we throw into the mix the labour/wage arrangements, we need to consider this as an exchange of payment for set outputs rather than purely dollars per hour. Then we can start defining expectations and understand the workload and related discrete stressors inherent in the tasks. This flows comfortably into task analyses and the basis for objective measures for each role.

    Dare I say it – risk manage the role.

    Thanks for such a high quality blog.

  7. Thanks, Kevin, for focusing on this crazy-difficult issue.

    There are SO many factors militating against satisfactory control of an issue that is so often an entrenched issue within specific industries (where the peer-group perception of being \’macho\’ manly-men is paramount, or where there is a \’tradition\’ – as in rosters for RMO\’s in hospitals), or where workers are functioning alone (for example, transport drivers, or crane, plant and dump truck operators in construction and mining) and so on.

    I am aware of a major mining company that offered their workforce a 15 hour a day, 4 week on-1 week off roster due to labour shortages. The crew looked at each other to see who would knock it back, but testosterone (and greed) won the day.

    The last I checked, in the US, the railways were able to insist on 3 x 8 hour shifts in every 48 hrs for a month, with one weekend off. So, regulation can certainly allow disasters-waiting-to-happen.

    I live in hope that some objective measures may be developed. As it stands, as you point out, fatigue can be so easily side-lined as merely a contributing factor, but, with the exception of the Coroner\’s finding a year or so ago regarding a crash involving an Army transport, there are VERY few examples of fatigue being identified as a primary factor that results in punitive action in its own right.

    My dream solution would focus on an objective measure of fitness for work. Such an objective measure could also be used as an adjunct or alternative to current drug and alcohol testing.

    One possibility is a computer-based program with associated hardware – even a Wii-type set-up. These could test reaction-time; eye tracking; co-ordination; and anticipative-predictive judgement – base-lined against both industry standards AND the individual\’s average performance.

    A 60 second test could detect an anomalous reading which would THEN trigger a deeper assessment (like drug & alcohol tests etc). Regardless, fitness for work would have been established or ruled out. It would also permit flexible multiple testing during the shift (at breaks, for example) in critical and high-risk scenarios. Academic agreed human-performance testing methodologies would have to be a fair bit more validated than they are now – but I feel it has potential.

    Of course, even this wouldn\’t ever completely solve negligent and intentional boundary-pushing (like certain transport companies that we know that falsify driver log-sheets and manipulate recorders etc), but it may be a start to creating an objective, rather than a subjective environment. (It was/is the same for alcohol – judgement is one of the first things affected, so self-assessment is really not an option – \”I\’m OK to drive!\” is the Universal motto of the drunk.)

    Self-assessment for the fatigued is a similar problem, because judgement and will-power are negatively impacted. Often, fighting against a request for more from a superior can be just too much hassle and requires too much energy for the truly fatigued. We need to get beyond subjective employer/employee judgement calls when it comes to fatigue.

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