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Recognizing fatigue: an “invisible epidemic” adversely affecting the bottom line

While the effects of fatigue have long been a major issue in the transportation industry, the problem has not received much attention in other industries. Yet, as Americans become increasingly a 24/7 society, fatigue is permeating workplaces across the country. According to research in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, almost 40% of American workers experience fatigue.

According to the study led by Judith Ricci, total lost productive time averaged 5.6 hours per week for workers with fatigue, compared to 3.3 hours for their counterparts without fatigue. Ricci describes fatigue as an “invisible epidemic” because it is hard to recognize and often goes unnoticed. However, fatigue reduces a worker’s ability to function, results in lower productivity and increases the chance of accidents and injuries.

Among those surveyed, the problem was more prevalent with women and with shift workers. Furthermore, workers who have one or more of nine particular health conditions – pain, digestive problems, depression, cold, flu, asthma, cancer, heart disease and diabetes – have more lost productive time.

According to Bill Sirois, VP and COO for Circadian Technologies, Inc., a research and consulting firm, the issues relating to sleep deprivation are becoming increasingly significant in the retail and emergency services sectors where the 24/7 service mentality has become the norm.

The U.S. Department of Labor notes that the symptoms of fatigue, both mental and physical, vary and depend on the person and his or her degree of overexertion. Some examples of fatigue include:
• weariness
reduced alertness, lack of concentration and memory
lack of motivation
increased susceptibility to illness
loss of appetite and digestive problems

Identify problem and craft solution

Workers who perform repetitive tasks
For workers who perform repetitive tasks, insufficient rest time increases the potential development of musculoskeletal disorders. In addition to adequate break time, the National Safety Council recommends that for static work, employers should change positions frequently and use fixtures or a vise. Awkward postures can increase fatigue and discomfort to the muscles and joints. To avoid this, position displays or work surfaces for easy viewing, use power tools in lieu of rotating the forearms, adjust work surfaces to elbow level and arrange the work station so that the most frequently used articles are within easy reach.

Shift workers

Workers who have shifts between 3 am and 6 am are at 15 times greater risk for automobile and industrial accidents according to Bill Sirios. Noting that it takes the human body two weeks to become adjusted to a schedule, the National Sleep Foundation recommends that people try to stay on fixed shifts and either stay away from rotating shifts or work them only every two weeks.

Furthermore, employees and management need to be educated about the impact of shift work on sleep-wake cycles and how to recognize the signs of fatigue. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggests encouraging sleep before working a night shift rather than sleeping directly following work as well as time management strategies to help shift workers become more efficient with hours awake so they can get proper sleep.

Truck drivers
One-third of truck drivers are said to have a sleep disorder, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Sleep apnea syndrome – a health condition in which breathing stops periodically during sleep – affects 18 million people in the U.S. Developing and implementing objective criteria for screening employees for sleep apnea and having a process to treat it will reduce preventable accidents, absenteeism and improve health costs.

While work/life programs aimed at helping employees balance their work and personal responsibilities are valuable to all employees, women are the predominant caregivers and can benefit significantly from child care initiatives, elder care programs, and alternative work arrangements.

Other suggestions include allowing employees to take a short walk, take a break even if not scheduled, incorporate bright colors and creative lighting to make the workplace more stimulating, develop alertness monitoring programs to do spot testing, evaluating work schedules, and allowing employees to take a 15 minute power nap. A recent study published in Chest found that smoking leads to poor sleep; thus, anti-smoking programs can also help.