Fatigue Hazards: How Can You Prepare?

Did you know that human fatigue can be just as dangerous as metal fatigue? Sleep loss and extended duty hours can leave you with progressive and localized structural damage to your body and your organization. Repeatedly not getting enough sleep is believed to increase the risk of a variety of chronic medical problems, including obesity, depression, gastrointestinal problems, compromised immune function, substance abuse, and cardiovascular disease.

At the corporate level, sleep loss is costing U.S. employers approximately $136 billion per year or more in lost productivity due to things like do-overs and lost time on task. This does not include the fatigue-related costs associated with incidents/accidents, insurance, healthcare, etc. Although the effects of fatigue can be even more far reaching, the evidence sufficiently highlights it as a hazard that warrants both personal and corporate attention.

The FAA has been working to develop guidance for fatigue risk management systems (FRMS) in aviation operations. An FRMS is a scientifically based, data-driven process that can be used to monitor and manage fatigue risks. An FRMS has the flexibility to encourage operational efficiency while reducing fatigue risk and associated safety hazards. The conditions that produce fatigue originate both in the workplace and in the employee’s personal life. For an FRMS to be effective, everyone must take some responsibility for fatigue factors (i.e., the maintainer, the manager, the executive).


Fatigue Risk Management

In the workplace, a number of factors can influence fatigue, including working hours, staffing levels, and the availability of break periods. Alternatively, personal factors can also lead to fatigue, including social and family commitments, commute time, second jobs, and medical conditions that may reduce the quality or quantity of sleep.

The employer has a responsibility to utilize available resources to manage fatigue risk and optimize the safety of their tools and products while the employee has a responsibility to ensure, as much as possible, that he or she is rested and “fit for duty” before reporting for work.

Fatigue risk management systems are widely used to manage fatigue among flight crews, the railroad industry, and drivers of commercial vehicles, among others. Successful implementation of an FRMS in these industries has yielded substantial improvements in personal health and well-being, as well as significant improvements in safety and reductions in organizational costs. For instance, Schneider National Inc., a multi-national trucking company, has reported more than a $10 million dollar savings in annualized health care costs alone.

Despite the documented benefits of fatigue risk management systems, they are still uncommon within aviation organizations. A number of different approaches can be used to implement an FRMS in aviation ground operations and can be considered as layers of defense in the “Swiss Cheese” model.

In the typical aviation ground operation, three goals can be identified for an effective FRMS: 1) reduce fatigue to an acceptable level, 2) reduce fatigue-related errors, and 3) minimize the consequences or harm of fatigue-related errors.

To be effective, a combination of approaches or countermeasures should be used to accomplish each goal and prevent an error from occurring. Countermeasures directed toward each goal can reduce the likelihood of fatigue-related errors and the magnitude of their consequences. Some of these countermeasures are currently being applied within the industry, while others may be feasible in the future.


Reducing Fatigue to an Acceptable Level

The first and most obvious goal of fatigue countermeasures is to reduce the level of fatigue experienced by personnel at work. Fatigue reduction interventions are intended to minimize fatigue in the workplace. Recognize that complete elimination of fatigue is not always practical. Workplace interventions can include duty time limits, scientific scheduling, napping, education, excused absences, and in some instances, medical testing and treatment.

The first level of defense against fatigue requires both employee and employer engagement. As an individual, you must apply fatigue education to your life outside of work to proactively reduce fatigue. At the same time, the employer must review workload and scheduling practices, organizational policies, and on-the-job fatigue countermeasures that could be used to reduce fatigue.

Reducing or Capturing Fatigue-Related Errors

Despite efforts to ensure that employees are well-rested and alert when they report for duty, it is not possible to completely eliminate fatigue from the workplace. For example, if you come to work rested but end up working for 20 hours straight, you will likely be fatigued.

Accordingly, you must present a second line of defense that either prevents the likelihood of an error among fatigued workers or mitigates fatigue-related errors once they have occurred. In other words, we know that people are going to be fatigued at times, so we must consider how to manage the risk when a fatigued maintainer is at work.

These interventions can involve two approaches: measures directed towards reducing the risk of the individual and measures directed toward reducing the risk of a task. For example, to reduce the risk of a fatigued individual you can institute work breaks and simplify work tasks. You should try to prevent fatigued workers from performing the critical tasks.


Minimizing the Consequences of Fatigue-Related Errors

After efforts have been made to reduce fatigue and prevent or capture fatigue-related errors, a final line of defense is to minimize the harm caused by these errors. Although many elements of ground operations can affect flight safety, the risk level of a task varies along a continuum that ranges from the most safety-critical to the least critical.

For example, checking the expiration date on life jackets or returning work stands to storage areas when fatigued is less safety critical than conducting a dye penetrant inspection on the engine component.

Minimizing the consequences of fatigue-related errors focuses on managing the severity of an error’s consequences. Despite our best efforts, fatigue-related errors will happen from time to time. We need to make sure these errors do not have serious consequences.

Even a well-rested employee can commit fatigue-related errors if he or she is working the back side of the clock. Effective fatigue risk management requires that everyone take responsibility for the problem and utilize multiple mitigation strategies.

FRMS Tools You Can Use Now

The FAA’s multi-disciplinary maintenance fatigue work group has developed a subset of the tools that you can use to reduce fatigue risks in your organization. These tools address fatigue awareness and education, fatigue assessment, workload and scheduling, and return-on-investment. The resources are available on the FAA’s website for maintenance fatigue (www.mxfatigue.com).

The fatigue awareness and education tools include FAA’s award-winning video “Grounded,” a computer-based fatigue countermeasure workshop, fatigue awareness posters, and a fatigue focus newsletter. All of the tools were designed to communicate the hazards of fatigue, the indicators of fatigue, and methods to eliminate or reduce fatigue in an organization.

These fatigue assessment tools were developed to improve both personal and organizational assessment of fatigue. The available data show that individuals are poor judges of their own fatigue levels, and employers are asking the wrong fatigue-related questions when incidents/accidents happen. To address these issues, the workgroup has developed a self-assessment checklist and a fatigue assessment form (for investigating accidents/incidents and normal operations).

Additional tools that may be beneficial to your organization include a workload and scheduling tool and an automated return-on-investment model. These tools are currently under development and can be used as management decision aids to improve fatigue risk assessment and support the appropriate implementation of fatigue countermeasures. The tools will be available for public use by September 2011.


Take Home Message

Fatigue is a hazard that has serious negative effects on personal health and occupational safety. We can all do better at managing fatigue risks in our organization. Employees and employers alike can use available tools to manage fatigue and subsequently improve the efficiency and safety of their organization.