Dirty Dozen: Fatigue

The need for safety never tires


Even Charles Lindbergh recognized the imminent danger of fatigue.

"My mind clicks on and off,” he said of his trans-Atlantic flight. “I try letting one eyelid close at a time while I prop the other with my will. But the effect is too much, sleep is winning, my whole body argues dully that nothing, nothing life can attain is quite so desirable as sleep. My mind is losing resolution and control."

The desirability of sleep is something we all usually feel at some point during the work day. Loss of resolution and control, however, is the result of fatigue and can contribute directly to accidents.

In 1998, Bosley, Miller, and Watson completed a study of workplace factors and fatigue in aircraft maintenance environments. According to that study, “Each day aviation maintenance workers are sometimes faced with sub-optimal work conditions which contribute to fatigue. When these conditions can be controlled they must be. When such conditions cannot be controlled then the system must help the human to work in a manner that is safe, healthy, efficient, and effective.”

Causes and risks of fatigue
Fatigue is a feeling of tiredness, exhaustion, or lack of energy. Common causes of fatigue include lack of sleep, lack of exercise, stress, anxiety, poor health, overwork, worry, boredom, and disruption in circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm is a daily rhythmic activity cycle, based on 24-hour intervals. Many of us have a routine of getting up at a certain time, working certain hours, eating at certain times, and going to bed around the same time daily. Any interruption to this could take us out of our groove and make it hard to adjust. Fatigue could also be a sign of anxiety or depression.

Maintenance workers studied by Bosley et al say that things like hangar noise, heat, humidity, inadequate lighting, and inadequate ventilation are factors that affect their work negatively. Of those, heat, humidity, and poor lighting and ventilation can relate directly to fatigue. Think about the last time you had to work in a hot hangar or workshop, and how everyday tasks seemed to take that much more out of you.

Working long shifts, split shifts, or inconsistent shifts can put someone at risk for fatigue. Constantly rearranging your sleep schedule can throw off your body’s natural rhythms and make it hard to adjust. Not getting enough sleep or rest between shifts can make your body that much more resistant to being awake.

Improving your diet and adding exercise to your regimen can help reduce your risk for fatigue. Cutting back on caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine can help as well.

The best way to combat fatigue is simply to get some sleep. However, this isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

Some ways to improve sleep include going to bed at the same time every night and cutting back on your television viewing to reduce stress on your eyes. Don’t eat right before bed. Don’t read or watch television in bed; this will help train your brain that your bed is only for sleeping in. If you do add exercise to your routine, don’t exercise within three hours of the time you go to bed – this gives your system time to readjust to its resting levels.

Symptoms of fatigue
Someone who is fatigued often exhibits reduced visual perception, short-term memory loss, distractibility, and loss of initiative. He or she will not be able to concentrate properly and likely will not notice that his or her performance has diminished. This person’s work might appear sloppy due to impaired decision making or judgment skills. The fatigued worker could also appear irritable or depressed.

The study by Bosley et al suggests that “airline maintenance workers do not perceive fatigue as a major problem.” However, decreased performance and sloppy work will not sit well with those who depend on the aircraft maintenance worker to be on top of their game. Sloppy work also puts air traveler safety at risk.

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