Fatigue at Work

One of our Safety Concepts Readers, Derek – a Safety Advisor in the Construction Industry requested some tips and remedies for fatigue and sleep deprivation.

Firstly, let’s look at sleep requirements. Studies show that the average adult needs around seven  hours of sleep every night. It is during this time that your body and mind recovers from stress (to a degree) and body demands – through heavy workloads or from holding the body in one position for any length of time.

If you sleep erractically – say, a couple of hours each night, then you are putting your health at risk – not only due to ‘accidents’ at work but also as your immune system lowers its ability to fight off illness.

Performing efficiently and safely at work requires an alert mind and rested body. So many safety incidents (work and non-work related) are directly attributed to fatigue. Working around the clock may be a way to ‘get the work done and bring the dollars in’ as the body can still perform through fatigue – but at what cost in productivity and worker’s health and morale?

Like the athlete who overtrains – they add just that one extra hour to their routine, and skim that one little hour of rest from their recovery schedule… and only have an inkling that they have overdone it by feeling a little sorer and a little tireder. Next thing the athlete finds themselves irritable, and in some cases crying for no reason, and eventually they suffer an injury. That ‘little bit extra’ has now led to downtime in their training schedule as they now need to recover from the injury.

Similarly, the worker adding that extra worktime to their schedule without appropriate recovery time (in the form of ‘real’ breaks and sleep) will find themselves irritable, cutting corners in regards to safety precautions because they simply don’t have the energy, and possibly creating injury (pulling a muscle, hurting their backs, etc.)

Conclusion – sleep and rest breaks are critical to our health and well-being.
Here are some ways to overcome fatigue in the workplace:

  • Avoid caffeine and nicotine. While nicotine and caffeine are stimulants, after the stimulus wears off – you often feel more fatigued than before. 
  • Exercise aerobically – a brisk walk (not a run because this can be anerobic) to get oxygen pumping through your system. 
  • Take a shower (not a hot one as this can make your drowsy).
  • Splash your face and neck with cold water.
  • Eat regular healthy meals. Don’t make the mistake of going for a ‘sugar boost’ by consuming lollies or sweets. Again, like the caffeine and nicotine, as soon as the stimulus wears off you’ll feel worse. Fruit (not juices) are a good alternative to sweets. Juices tend to flood the body with sugar again, whereas the fruit takes time to digest, feeding you energy over a longer period and at a more ‘usable quantity’. Eat a balanced diet. Choose whole-grain breads, cereals and pastas over the more processed products – again allowing for digestion to feed you energy over a longer period rather than simply a short term boost.
  • Drink! Drink! And drink some more! Drink at least 8-10 glasses of water a day. 
  • Make work procedures so efficient that energy is saved. eg. instead of bending down to pick up tools that are used for a job, or needing to reach up high to retrive them, have them attached to a wall within easy reach, or on a bench top, saving energy. Sit while you work instead of standing. 
  • Be smart with work activity set up. If possible complete more challenging activities when you feel fresher, and easier and less potentially dangerous tasks as your energy levels begin to lag. Obviously the better solution would be to have a break – but unfortunately, that’s not always possible in some work environments. 
  • Incorporate breaks throughout your shift. It always fascinates me that people, in particular teachers, go on ‘break’ but don’t actually get a break! They scoff down a hasty lunch as they deal with students during morning tea and lunch time. Everyone needs a break, and it will be a good thing for teachers (and their students!) if teachers do get some time to themselves to wind down. 
  • Ensure the work area is well ventilated. Your body needs oxygen to energize, and stale air doesn’t supply you with what you need.
  • Ensure the work area is well lit. Light sends a signal to the body that it is time to be awake and alert, not time to be drowsy.
  • Work at a steady pace. Crazy and ballistic not only burns energy – it also creates the potential for injury and accidents. 
  • As an employer or Health and Safety Officer, create fixed shifts (if possible) rather than rotating shifts. Shift rotations put pressure on the body and mind to adjust, whereas fixed shifts allow some semblence of routine to develop.
  • If you are working around the clock with breaks incorporated, nap. There are benefits to napping. In the past napping has been viewed as something that only ‘old people’ do, as came about the names ‘Nanna Nap’ and ‘Granny Downtime’. But nappying is a great way to allow the body and mind to recover. A team of researchers discovered that a 45-minute nap improved alertness for six hours after the nap. It has also been found that a nap pre-activity (such as shiftwork) of one to two hours helps people to function better. And that even a 20 minute nap can make a big difference.
  • Establish a ‘rest area’ for workers to have some time out. The area should be clean, have dim lighting, no possible interruptions (phone calls, people traffic passing by, or PA announcements), a relaxing environment (no ‘up beat’ music, no paperwork clutter, or chatting workers), comfortable seating and beds, no clock (people often stress over how long they have to rest. Waking and constantly peering at the clock is not going to assist recovery), and have a comfortable room temperature. 
    If during your designated rest time, and even though you are incredibly tired, you have trouble falling asleep, try these exercises:

    * mentally and physically go through each muscle of your body (starting from the top of your head right through to the tips of your toes – although you’ll more than likely be asleep before you get there!) and consciously relax each.

    * think of a truly relaxing scene – maybe falling asleep on a verandah with cool breezes caressing your skin, or lying in the shade on a secluded beach and listening to the calls of seagulls and the rhythmic ocean waves.

    * If your time out allows you to be home, ask your spouse how their day was – this might possibly send you to sleep… I know it always works for me! 🙂

About the Author

Safety Concepts is an online resource providing up to date insights and covering issues in the field of Workplace Safety.

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  1. debbie says:

    thanks for tafe study

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