Go to Bed, Sleepyhead: Understanding and addressing fatigue in the workplace

Published On
Aug 13, 2021

Fatigue in the workplace can be very dangerous. When people are tired, they tend to make mistakes that can lead to accidents, resulting in injury or illness. It is estimated that fatigue is a contributing factor in one-third of all occupational injuries. As a result, electrical workers need to be extraordinarily cautious, because one simple mistake could be the difference between life and death.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in three Americans doesn’t get enough sleep. The CDC recommends that every adult gets at least seven hours of sleep each night. While the body is sleeping, damaged tissues and muscles are repaired, and energy levels are restored. So even though sleep is not the only factor linked to fatigue, it is one of the most crucial elements in preventing it.

Fatigue is physical or mental exhaustion caused by exertion. It can occur in either form; however, it typically occurs as a combination of the two. Lack of sleep, inconsistent sleep patterns, poor diet, lack of exercise, stress, dehydration and existing health conditions can all contribute to fatigue.

Fatigue impairs employees in several ways: concentration becomes more difficult, reaction time and awareness of one’s surroundings decrease, and the ability to make quick decisions is lost. The effects of fatigue are comparable to those of alcohol consumption. It is estimated that 24 hours without sleep is equal to a blood alcohol level of 0.10—that’s above the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle.

Workplace fatigue also impacts team morale and the overall work environment. Workplace fatigue can result in decreased work performance, reduced productivity, increased tardiness or absences, poor relationships with colleagues and the inability to follow directions or carry out tasks.

Construction workers face physically demanding work, tight deadlines and completion dates, irregular and long hours, changing job locations and extreme environmental conditions, which all can lead to fatigue. On top of that, workers may encounter electrical hazards, noise hazards and potentially hazardous chemicals or materials.

Employers should be proactive in trying to prevent fatigue in the workplace, even though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not have a standard addressing it. If employers and workers can come together and take this hazard seriously, accidents caused by fatigue can be completely preventable.

Ways to help prevent or limit fatigue

  • Set work schedules that provide sufficient opportunities for adequate sleep.
  • Consider shorter shifts during the night, and limit the number of consecutive shifts.
  • Require a minimum number of hours between shifts.
  • Create procedures to monitor and manage fatigue.
  • Educate workers about the safety risks.
  • Implement a method for employees to anonymously report problematic work schedules.

Additionally, employers can help prevent fatigue by providing the proper equipment and tools to minimize physical strain. Ergonomics or fitting a job to a person can help lessen muscle fatigue, increase productivity and reduce the number and severity of work-related musculoskeletal injuries and disorders. Employers can also provide monitoring devices or wearable technology to remind workers to take a break, get a drink of water or get out of the sun.

Encourage employees to use time off wisely to ensure they are in top shape to work. That means getting enough sleep, avoiding caffeine and alcohol and not taking on extra work or side jobs. Although the latter can be financially enticing, ultimately working too many hours leads to lower productivity rates and burnout. It is imperative that workers take regular breaks—not just periodically at work, but regular days off and vacations, as well.

Finally, workers should follow any near-miss or other reporting policies their employer has in place and keep watch for indications of fatigue in themselves and their co-workers. Signs may include fidgeting, rubbing the eyes and frequent blinking or blank stares. Other more obvious indicators of fatigue include drowsiness, tiredness, headaches, loss of balance, hallucinations, weariness and persistent yawning.

About the Author

Tom O'Connor

Safety Columnist

Tom O'Connor is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Reach him at toconnor@intecweb.com.


Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.