Battling Fatigue on the Job Site
The operator stared at the CAT 349 excavator that lay half in the trench. The cab had been partially crushed when the operator’s side of the trench wall had collapsed as he straddled it with the excavator’s tracks.
“I don’t know, Jess,” he said to me. “It just seemed like the thing to do at the time, but now that I look at it from here, I don’t know what the heck I was seeing and thinking. I would normally never attempt anything like that. What’s wrong with me?”
I could see genuine wonder and concern in his eyes, so I asked, “How many hours have you worked over the past two weeks?”
His reply answered his own question. “One hundred seventy-eight hours according to my paychecks, and we’ve worked 16 hours per day for the past three days. Jess, you know we’ve just been doing what we have to do to meet the outage and final tie-in deadline.”
And in that brief exchange, we see how fatigue builds and an example of how it can affect you, me and our crews.
Although this incident happened well over 10 years ago, on a pipeline project far away, our projects, people and industry are still experiencing the same time pressures, seeing similar incidents and having the same conversations. What you’ll learn in this Tailgate Topic is how to identify and combat fatigue within and around you.
What is Fatigue and How Can it Affect Us?
Those who have experienced fatigue – which is just about everyone – describe it as physical, mental and emotional sluggishness, an inability to be clear, bright and ready for action. Following are more specific descriptions of fatigue and how it affects us in various ways.
- Lack of desire to exert energy: This can lead to us not doing the things we know we should do.
- In our work life, productivity, quality, safety and the environment can suffer.
- In our home life, relationships with family and friends may not get the attention they deserve.
- As individuals, health, hygiene and other personal care items may decline.
- Slower reflexes: A fatigued worker might, for example, have a slower reaction to hand signals from a spotter or brake lights from a vehicle in front of them.
- Diminished coordination: Coordination is our physical capability to “thread the needle,” so to speak – whatever that looks like in our work. Diminished coordination impacts our ability to control those physical movements.
- Increased hunger and/or thirst: Your body is trying to get more energy to compensate for feeling tired. Although the best solution is eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, in the absence of that, your body will seek out additional calories even though your metabolism is slowing.
- Decreased concentration: This can lead to slower reflexes because the body can’t react until your fatigued brain tells it what to do.
- Diminshed problem-solving and task completion abilities: We regularly face problems and step-oriented tasks in our work. When we are fatigued, our brain has trouble engaging, which can lead to numerous production, quality, safety and environmental issues.
- Increased anger: Internal frustration from the mental and physical issues listed above can lead to outbursts that likely wouldn’t have happened if the worker wasn’t fatigued.
- Increased apathy: Fatigue can lead to feelings that range from being overwhelmed to depression, and these two feelings live in apathy, which is believing that you’re helpless to do anything that will make the situation better.
What Contributes to Fatigue?
While it would be nice if fatigue came from just one source, that’s not the case. It stems from a combination of work, home and personal influences, including working extended hours for more than 10 days; being busy outside of work; mental stress; environmental extremes such as heat, excessive noise and continuous vibration; getting less than six to eight hours of sleep per night; and poor nutrition and/or dehydration.
How Can Leaders Help Alleviate Fatigue?
Although we can’t totally eliminate fatigue from our job sites, there are some things that we can do to help set up our crews for success:
- Late start: When needed, call for a late start to the day to help workers get the opportunity for six to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.
- Rest breaks: Increase the frequency and duration of rest breaks as fatigue increases and encourage employees to rest and hydrate during those breaks. During breaks, provide shelter from the elements as well as water and non-caffeinated beverages.
- Crew rotation: When possible, rotate crew members from strenuous to less strenuous tasks.
How Can Workers Help Alleviate Fatigue?
Our success in the war against fatigue is a joint effort. It requires workers to make good life decisions, such as:
- Getting six to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.
- Ensuring their diet consists of healthy choices:
- Eat a nutritious breakfast before leaving for work.
- Pack a lunch that includes fruits and vegetables for snacks.
- Minimize alcohol at night.
- Ensure the body stays hydrated (clear urine) by taking regular hydration breaks and consuming water and/or non-caffeinated sports drinks.
- Avoid caffeinated soda and other beverages.
- Not driving while fatigued. Carpool to work, if possible, to increase rest time.
- Minimizing the use of over-the-counter and prescription drugs that affect mental alertness.
- Establishing an environment in which everyone monitors those around them for signs of fatigue.
Time pressure from outages and other priority assignments contributes to fatigue in our workforce, but there also are personal issues that ride in with our workers each day. Regardless, there are strategies we can use and tactics we can employ to battle fatigue as we strive to do the job right and go home unharmed today and every day.
About the Author: Jesse Hardy, CSP, CIT, CUSP, is vice president of HSE for Supreme Industries, a Harwinton, Connecticut-based contractor that specializes in right-of-way clearing, building access roads and pads, drilling and pole pulling.