Managing Workers' Comp: Fatigue at Work: a Bad Sign of the Economic Times

Dec. 1, 2010
Prolonged workdays are causing many workers to fall asleep or feel sleepy at work.

In a recent statement, Thomas J. Balkin, vice chair of the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), stated: “Studies show fatigue creates long-lasting changes to one's ability to think and function well during the work day.”

A new report points out that Americans are working more hours and trying to cope with the resulting sleepiness. Astonishingly, 63 percent of those polled stated they simply accept this sleepiness and just keep going. Unfortunately, where many of these workers are going is to the emergency room.

The ramifications of a sputtering economy are that many companies have cut their work force to stay afloat. Those left to toe the line now are working longer hours and, in some cases, performing duties unfamiliar to them without adequate training. Toss in the stress related to concerns about continued work force cutbacks and it's a lethal combination of fear and fatigue that is resulting in rising workers' compensation claims.

One of my clients, a manufacturing company with very little history of injury claims — perhaps only five per year at the most — has seen a dramatic rise in the number of injuries. Employees reported as many as 15 to 20 injuries in the last year, resulting from lacerations, back sprains, broken ankles and so forth. The employer is confused by this increase in the number of injuries, explaining that one of the injured employees “is such a good worker.”

Performance isn't the issue. The human body is a machine, a machine with limitations. And what that employer may fail to realize is that the workweek of his “good worker” has increased from 40 hours to 72 hours because there are fewer bodies on the floor to meet production demands. His employees are fatigued, not moving as fast and feeling more stress. It's easy to connect the dots to the next workers' compensation claim.


There are simple ways employers can help fight the fatigue factor, keep employees safe and not impact their insurance premiums:

  • Rotate workers frequently during their shifts

    Workers who do the same task for hours on end tend to become both fatigued and complacent. A change of surrounding can be a key step in rejuvenating their interest and attention in the work they are doing.

  • Initiate longer break periods

    Instead of 15- or 30-minute breaks, give an hour break. Some companies even provide an area where workers can take a nap. It may seem like a long time for a worker to be “off the job,” but it's a lot shorter than the time spent on disability leave.

  • Use split shifts

    Instead of having a worker do a straight 16-hour shift, let them work 8 hours, go home and rest for 6 hours, then come back and do the last eight hours. The time away from the job can be extremely beneficial.

  • Provide food

    Refueling is key, and the $50 spent to have fruit and maybe even a pizza available for those working longer shifts is a good investment compared to the costly consequences associated with a prolonged disability.

  • Encourage stretching or exercise

    Most employees feel tired during the day because their muscles remain in relatively the same position and the oxygen levels decrease. Sometimes just some simple stretching or a short, 10-minute walk can help rejuvenate the body, which will keep the muscles limber and help avoid injury or strain. Providing posters with simple stretches also could encourage employees avoid the strain of a long day.

Fatigue and long hours in the workplace are serious issues. In its investigation of the causes of the BP Texas City oil refinery explosion in 2005, in which 15 workers were killed and approximately 170 injured, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board cited worker fatigue and long work hours as likely contributing factors to the explosion.

It's unrealistic to think that employers suddenly will ramp up their work force overnight. The times are such that workplaces will remain lean, and in some cases, two people are doing the work once done by four.

Be proactive in your precautions. Implementing these simple steps could go a long way in keeping productivity up and injury claims down. And with companies still cutting back, can you really afford to lose another employee?

Stacey Cheese is the director of claims and workers' compensation services for Keystone CompControl, the Seltzer Group and East Coast Risk Management.

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