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Searching for Solutions for Sleep-Deprived Workers

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Construction is a demanding business, and for many of us, catching up on sleep is high on the to-do list during Christmas close-down! Insufficient quality sleep and the resulting worker fatigue are a problem all year round—and they are increasingly recognised as a contributing factor to work-related accidents and injuries.

So much so, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health, Aged Care and Sport has commenced an Inquiry into Sleep Health Awareness in Australia. The inquiry has had submissions from sleep disorder experts, Safe Work Australia and others. It will be holding a public hearing in early 2019 to investigate how to better address the economic and social costs of our collective sleep-deprivation.

Protecting workers from the risks associated with lack of sleep or workplace fatigue has also led to the development of smart solutions. Caterpillar’s Smartbands and SmartCap’s hard hat insert, for instance, can issue an alert if someone is at risk due to fatigue.

There is also an increasing focus on management strategies that can address the issues. One specialist consultancy in the field, Integrated Safety Solutions, is actually hosting an international conference in Singapore next year. Fatigue Management and Human Factors in our 24-hour Society will showcase best-practice approaches.

Dr Adam Fletcher, CEO of Integrated Safety Solutions, is a pioneer in the field of risk-based Fatigue Management. He was a Senior Research Fellow with the University of South Australia’s Centre for Sleep Research and has consulted for organisations including NASA, the US Defence Department, BHP Billiton, Honeywell, the Civil Aviation Authority and Zurich. 

Dr Fletcher tells Jobsite that in his work with construction sector firms, he highlights the importance of a management approach focused on building and maintaining a high-performance team. According to Fletcher, just saying people should get more sleep is not an effective message. Instead, he talks about people being critical to the success of the mission or achieving completion of a contract. Therefore, they need to be performing at their best, collectively, as a team.

On a construction site that means having “the safest and most productive people on the tools.”

The workplace culture needs to encourage workers to feel comfortable to put their hand up at the start of the day and admit they are a fatigue risk so they are not assigned high-risk tasks.

Project managers, supervisors and others in decision-making roles need to be empowered as well. They need to be able to swap people in and out of tasks or bring in extra manpower or other assistance to address any bottlenecks in the program.

One of the challenges the industry needs to address is the ‘go hard or go home’ and ‘toughen up’ culture.

Dr Fletcher explains there are also pressures beyond the worksite that contribute to the drive to push past the fatigue barrier.

“It’s a combination of things,” he says “There is the production and deadline pressure, and there are the financial incentives for workers around overtime.”

Another issue is located further up the chain from the worksite. “Projects are run by spreadsheets and accountants and engineers,” Dr Fletcher says, which can contribute to over-fatigued workers taking unnecessary risks.

These management levels are focused on the modelling, contracts and financials, not the fatigue levels of workers. Thus, some decisions may be made that challenge the ability of the site teams to manage workloads in a way that doesn’t cause fatigue and added pressure.

The need is for the senior executive and project leaders to “set the tone” of a project so there is the capability of agile, flexible responses to worker fatigue.

“Humans are the thing you burn,” Dr Fletcher says. “It is rare to see a project say ‘we’ll get extra contractors in’ if things fall behind.”

Instead, the existing workforce is asked to work harder and longer. At the worker level, the incentive of a bigger pay packet from working an extra 12 hours on a Saturday, for example, even when a worker knows they are bone-tired, is hard to resist.

“The offer of the pot of gold talks to the logical part of the brain, and the worker says to themselves, oh, they’ll be right.”

This can be a recipe for accidents.

The significantly fatigued state is one where microsleeps can occur, leading to vehicle accidents, Dr Fletcher says. He points out that you can’t “talk yourself through it” when the body is simply at its biological limit.

Over-fatigued people are more likely to “cut corners, tick boxes, and not get the second pair of eyes they know they should get to check the work.” This makes for a potentially lethal situation given construction is already a high-risk environment involving heights, power tools, machinery, chemicals, and other hazards.

Dr Fletcher says workers in the industry need to be “quite compassionate” with themselves.

“Cut yourself some slack—we are not robots,” he says. “You’ve got to be realistic about your limits.”

Cultivating a site culture where people “work hard and get stuff done” is about doing the job as a team, Dr Fletcher says, one where people who stand aside and let someone take their place when impaired through fatigue are just as essential to the mission’s success as those who are ready to step up.

Encouraging everyone to be a high performer is not about everyone always being tough and gung-ho. Dr Fletcher explains it is more like coaching a football team. The coach doesn’t want any of the team to drop the ball, so his or her role is to ensure everyone is in the position that will make the most of their current energy level, expertise and skill.

“What we want is high performing teams delivering high-quality outcomes and people having high incomes over the long term.”

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