Fatigue is an issue prevalent in a wide variety of industries, and has negative effects on both productivity and employee health. However, only in certain disciplines does working while tired also reflect a potential safety concern.
While property-carrying and passenger-carrying drivers have hours of service regulations they must adhere to, and pilots have flight crew member duty and rest requirements to follow, there are no rules regarding how much sleep a worker on a manufacturing line must have in order to perform. A new study from the American Society of Safety Professionals Foundation argued that employers should begin monitoring the fatigue levels of their workers in order to reduce injuries.
In early January, the ASSP released the final progress report of a three-year study, Advancing Safety Surveillance Using Individualized Sensor Technology, or ASSIST. Led by Dr. Lora Cavuoto at the University at Buffalo and Dr. Fadel Megahed at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University of Ohio, working with researchers from Auburn University and the University of Dayton, the project involved capturing the safety performances of individuals and translating the data into personal fatigue levels.
The researchers recruited 28 healthy adults to wear wrist, hip and ankle sensors while performing the type of tasks routinely performed by manufacturing workers. According to the authors of the study, the results showed that it was possible for employers to monitor workers in an inexpensive and unobtrusive way, and still obtain meaningful safety data.
"By setting parameters, we identified behavioral changes in how people conduct work over time," Dr. Cavuoto said in a press release. "For example, we saw how workers performed the same task in the first hour as compared to the third hour when fatigue became a factor. Wearable technology can uncover precursors to larger problems and help establish safety interventions that may call for scheduled breaks, posture adjustments or vitamin supplements that help the body."
Scheduled breaks, posture adjustments and vitamin supplements are among the suggested solutions for reducing worker fatigue and enhancing safety.
Cavuoto and her fellow researchers believe that their ability to quantify a worker's fatigue levels should presage the creation of a comprehensive framework for identifying fatigue risks and intervening to protect workers from injuries that result from working while tired.
"Fatigue is a hidden danger in the workplace, but now we've tackled the measurement and modeling of fatigue through wearable sensors, incorporating big data analytics and safety engineering," Cavuoto said. "Information is power, so knowing when, where and how fatigue impacts worker safety is critical. You can't identify solutions until you pinpoint the problems."
While exhausted workers operating heavy machinery pose an obvious safety risk, the problem of employee fatigue also represents a very real and measurable threat to productivity, as well.
Fatigue costs U.S. employers more than $130 billion a year in lost productivity, and costs the average American company with 1,000 employees $1 million a year, according to the National Safety Council. Such productivity losses also frequently force other employees to increase their own workload. The phenomenon is particularly prevalent in the manufacturing industry, as well as warehousing and construction.
By finding ways to measure and account for worker fatigue, employers can not only reduce human error and increase the overall safety of their worksites and facilities, but also help stop the loss of productivity and profits caused by tiredness.
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