Dangers of workforce fatigue

Shift work makes it much harder for equipment operators to concentrate. Credit Trondheim Havn Shift work makes it much harder for equipment operators to concentrate. Credit Trondheim Havn
Industry Database

TT Club’s Peregrine Storrs-Fox considers an often over-looked risk in the cargo handling business

Many ports and terminals need to meet growing expectations to provide access to a 24/7/365 service. This commercial reality usually necessitates shift work, leading to workforce operating during what could be considered unnatural hours. This can be accentuated in a ‘global village’ with expectations to operate across time zones.

Recent studies suggest that operator fatigue could be a major contributor to incidents in the workplace. Affecting the judgement of staff and increasing the propensity to make, what in hindsight could be considered incorrect decisions and thus increasing risk, the consequences of workforce fatigue should be taken seriously by employers.

One of the fundamental challenges associated with fatigue and stress is that they are not easy to identify, quantify or monitor. Signs of fatigue and stress can include irritability, depression, loss of appetite and an increased susceptibility to illness. Awareness therefore of the symptoms and effects of fatigue becomes critical in managing the related workplace risks.

As the effects of fatigue include reduced decision-making ability, reduced communication skills, reduced attention and vigilance, dulled reactions and an increased tendency for risk taking, it is not difficult to correlate fatigue with potential dangers in terminals, especially as a high percentage are working with heavy machinery and mobile equipment.

Humans naturally follow a biological clock, a cycle of sleep, wakefulness and alertness that is generally aligned with the hours of daylight. Due to the ‘unnatural’ waking hours experienced by night, shift and extended time working, the effects of fatigue can be intensified when compared with those working a traditional day shift. Studies suggest that periods of intense fatigue are usually experienced during the hours where we instinctively require sleep the most, between 23:00 and 06:00. Furthermore, shift workers suffer from sleep deprivation because their sleep schedule changes frequently. Where shifts are rotated, experts recommend this is done clockwise in order to support the adjustment.

Watchful eye

A recent study sought to monitor personnel driving mobile equipment through the deployment of sophisticated camera technology installed in the vehicles. The equipment was mounted in the driving cab of the vehicles and monitored the behaviour and responsiveness of the operator. The associated software detected events such as when the eyes of the operator unwittingly closed for any prolonged period during their working hours.

The study started with an information campaign explaining to workers the effects of fatigue, followed by two stages of monitoring. In the first stage the equipment was installed and only recorded fatigue events without alerting the driver, building a significant amount of information over a period. The second phase of the study introduced an audible warning of an ‘event’ related to prolonged eye closure, thus highlighting the issue to the operator.

The results of the study were illuminating. Notably and unsurprisingly, there was a much higher fatigue event rate during what was the traditional night shift, especially during the period 23:00 – 05:00. Events were recorded evidencing that operators could close their eyes for several seconds while driving the vehicle.

While this is inherently dangerous in any circumstances, when considered in the often congested environment of a container terminal yard, there is an increased risk of a high consequence incident. By way of context, travelling at 20 kph, a vehicle would travel in the region of 11 metres during an eye closure of just two seconds. The introduction of an audible warning led to dramatic improvements; in some cases, the number of events recorded reduced to zero.

In addition to such monitoring, there are a number of known environmental factors which can be modified in order to mitigate risks associated with fatigue. While not an exhaustive list, dim lighting, high temperatures, high levels of comfort, tasks which must be sustained for long periods and tasks which are repetitive, difficult, boring or monotonous can all lead to increased fatigue levels.

Workforce management often focuses on ‘absenteeism’, but there could be greater cost associated with ‘presenteeism’, where workers are unaware of the risks yet continue to work.

Any attempt to address workplace fatigue and stress should start with engagement with the entire workforce to increase awareness and provide a broader recognition of the phenomenon. Workforce awareness improves the ability to identify individual issues. Inclusion is key in effective management to overcome barriers related to individual ‘coping strategies’ and strengthen feelings of workforce well-being and support.

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