It is often assumed that the responsibility of an employer, to take reasonable care to avoid injury to employees, ends at the end of the working day or when they leave work premises. But where fatigue management is concerned, that is not always the case.
Fatigue management is a serious issue, especially for staff who are working shifts, longer than normal hours or who are in Fly In Fly Out (FIFO) workplaces.
The employer’s business operations might reasonably require shift workers to work through to the early hours of the morning or to even work longer than normal shifts. It is in these situations, management have a duty of care to ensure they manage the risks associated with employee fatigue.
The existence of a duty of care to manage fatigue is now well established as evidenced by the following two cases.
Case Study One – Burswood Casino
In 2012, a shift worker at the Burswood Casino in Perth fell asleep during a 45-minute drive home from work at about 4:40am. Although she was unable to prove that it was fatigue which had caused the accident, the Court found that a duty of care did exist which required the employer to take reasonable steps to manage the risks associated with employee fatigue.
Case Study Two – BM Alliance Coal Operation Pty Ltd & Ors
More recently, the Queensland Supreme Court found an employer liable when an employee at a mine in Central Queensland fell asleep at the wheel during a five-hour drive home after completing four straight days of 12 hour shifts.
Fatigue can be caused a range of factors including inadequate sleep, circadian disruption, environmental conditions (such as heat, cold or noisy environments) or simply job demands that require repetitive or physical tasks.
It is now widely accepted that fatigue impairs judgement. A study published in bio journal Occup Environ Med, found that going for between 17 to 19 hours of no sleep had the same effect as a blood alcohol reading of 0.05. After 24 hours of being awake that increased to 0.1 – double the legal limit.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, “young males, shift workers, commercial drivers and people with untreated sleep disorders or with short-term or chronic sleep deprivation” all have an increased risk for fall-asleep crashes.
They say that being a shift worker or working long hours will increase your risk by “nearly six times”. Further, those who are on rotating shifts or working longer than 60 hours a week “need to be particularly careful”.
Long-haul drivers are also at risk with “at least 15% of all heavy truck crashes involve fatigue” and business travellers who spend hours behind the wheel or fly long distances are also at greater risk.
Implications for Employers
Cases involving fatigue raise a number of factors employers should be aware of and include having a fatigue management plan in place, educating employees about fatigue and the signs to be aware of (noting that an extremely tired employee may not be fit to make a decision on their ability to drive anyway) and understanding the obligation of the employer to have satisfactory solutions in place to prevent fatigue from occurring in the first place.
Prolonger working hours and fatigue also poses other health issues to the employee such as increased exposure levels such as noise, heat and chemicals as well as the potential for an overuse injury if the work is of a repetitive nature.
WorkCover Queensland have a Guide for managing the risk of fatigue at work and details what employers can do to manage exhaustion in employees. It’s a good place to start and should form part of your staff induction and ongoing training.