Severe Impact of Fatigue in the Workplace Examined

April 3, 2002
What do the Exxon Valdez, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island incidents have in common? Fatigue. Employee fatigue played a role in all three tragedies.

What do the Exxon Valdez, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island incidents have in common? Fatigue. Employee fatigue played a role in all three tragedies.

How many of us have dozed off at work, or been so tired we knew we weren''t giving our job our full attention? According to a new poll from the National Sleep Foundation, most of us have experienced extreme fatigue at work at some point.

The poll found an overwhelming majority of Americans agree that inadequate sleep impairs their work performance and puts them at increased risk for accidents, injuries and health problems. The poll results underscore what researchers and industry experts have said for years: Fatigue in the workplace costs American industry at least $77 billion per year.

Dr. Martin Moore-Ede, president and CEO of Circadian Technologies Inc. (CTI), an international research and consulting firm that implements corporate programs to reduce risk from human factors in the workplace, says that in addition to the role worker fatigue plays in headline-making incidents, it also contributes to 25 percent of all highway accidents. "With Americans working longer hours, including demanding overnight shifts, I fully expect that the epidemic of employee fatigue will continue to cause significant problems," notes Moore-Ede.

Over 45 percent of companies with around-the-clock operations view the business risks associated with fatigue as moderate to severe, according to CTI''s annual Shiftwork Practices Survey. CTI''s most recent survey finds that operations managers believe employee fatigue to be the direct cause of at least 18 percent of all accidents and injuries occurring in their facilities.

Research studies have demonstrated that shiftworkers are two times more likely than the average American to suffer from sleep apnea, which results in constant interrupted sleep and is directly linked to higher workplace accident rates. Sleep apnea is characterized by loud snoring and numerous instances of pauses in breathing during sleep. Workplace fatigue is also a major factor in the stress levels of many employees, with nearly 75 percent of American nurses claiming that stress and overwork is the number one concern they face in their jobs.

According to the NSF poll, a majority of Americans support increased regulation on the number of hours worked by employees in demanding professions such as doctors, pilots and truck drivers. Legislators in many states are already drafting legislation to limit the work hours of doctors and nurses (Minnesota just passed a law limiting overtime for nurses), and industry interest groups continue to debate federal government efforts to revisit hours-of-service regulations in the trucking, motorcoach, aviation and rail industries.

"Recent court cases holding companies liable for employees who suffer fatigue-related injuries, as well as the current environment of soaring insurance premiums, are increasing pressure on companies to take proactive steps to reduce the chronic levels of drowsy employees in their workplaces," says Moore-Ede.

According to CTI, companies wanting to reduce the business risk from human factors can:

  • Evaluate their workforce towards better determining which schedules are least fatiguing and ensure the highest levels of performance and safety.
  • Provide training for employees to educate them on how to reduce the risks associated with managing their lives around their work schedules.
  • Perform periodic health and safety assessments of employees in order to implement programs to control risks from human factors.
  • Measure employee fatigue levels while on-duty, and provide an alternative framework to hours of service regulations.

The results of the Shiftwork Practices Survey can be found on the publication section of CTI''s Web site at

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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