Fatigue a serious concern among transportation employers

Tired truck drivers? That’s a big concern based on a new survey by the National Safety Council (NSC) that found 97% of transportation (covering trucking, rail, air and other transportation-related companies) employers are worried about employee fatigue.
   NSC notes that the results of the survey are not necessarily indicative of a widespread problem. For instance, 38% of transportation employers said they found an employee asleep on the job, but that percentage includes any employer who reported even a single employee asleep on the job.
   Still the survey’s findings back up what safety-conscience companies like SmartDrive have found in their research. And the number of transportation companies concerned about fatigue is reason to take action.
   “SmartDrive’s own research finds that fatigue is a large problem in the transportation industry. In fact, one of our studies of the trucking industry found that collision drivers are 61% more likely to have a ‘yawning observation’-an indication of fatigue-than non-collision drivers,” Melissa Purcell, senior vice president of marketing and customer success at SmartDrive, explained to FreightWaves.
   The NSC report, Fatigue in Safety-Critical Industries: Impact, Risks and Recommendations, summarizes the results of two national surveys, one of employers and a second probability-based survey of employees. The report highlights findings from the construction, manufacturing, transportation and utilities sectors – all high-risk industries that tend to use shift work, which commonly leads to fatigue.
   Overall in these industries, NSC found that 69% are tired at work.
   There is a difference in opinion, if you will, between employers and employees. In transportation, 100% of employers state that fatigue is a safety issue while only 73% of employees believe so. Only 70% of employees reported feeling tired at work. NSC attributes as much as 13% of workplace injuries in all industries to fatigue.
   “Tired employees are less effective (presenteeism) and more likely to miss work (absenteeism), creating a drag on productivity. Importantly for safety critical industries, fatigued employees are also more likely to make mistakes that cause incidents and injuries,” the report noted.
   In transportation, 97% of employers said they feel the impact of fatigue on their operations, with 64% believing it leads to a productivity decline and 45% experiencing safety incidents as a result.
   NSC identifies fatigue symptoms as including tiredness, sleepiness, reduced energy and increased effort needed to perform basic tasks. Many factors cause fatigue, with the most obvious being sleep loss.
   “However, factors in addition to sleep loss can play a role in employees’ ability to get proper rest and how much fatigue they experience,” NSC said. “Shift schedules, monotonous tasks, physically demanding work, stress and the work environment are also factors.”
   In some cases, truck drivers and their companies may not even be aware of their fatigue or choose to ignore it. Purcell said that technology can help identify fatigue-related issues to help drivers find solutions before fatigue leads to an incident.
   “It can be hard to identify fatigue, let alone prove that it’s the root cause of an issue, which is why it’s important to find out why an employee is fatigued,” she said. “[As an example], through the use of technologies such as our video-based safety program, a fleet observed that a driver was experiencing fatigue issues. Before this potential problem became an accident, the safety manager was able to speak with the driver and recommended he seek medical attention. After participating in a sleep study, the driver learned that he was suffering from sleep apnea. With medical guidance, he was able to address the issue, eliminate it as a cause of fatigue and drive more safely.”
   In the report, NSC found that only 77% of transportation employees believe it is unsafe to drive while fatigued; 97% of companies think so.
   “One study (Roehrs, 2003) found that a person who loses two hours of sleep from a normal eight-hour sleep schedule performs similarly to someone who has drunk two to three beers,” the report said. “Sleep loss and the resultant fatigue should be treated as seriously as drug or alcohol impairment on the job. The discrepancy between employers and employees who agree that fatigued driving is unsafe points to an urgent need to educate employees on this topic.”
   “We’ve been looking at the impact of fatigue in the workplace for a long time, but it is troubling to see just how affected our safety-sensitive industries are,” said Emily Whitcomb, senior program manager of Fatigue Initiatives at the National Safety Council. “When you’re tired, you can be deadly and these industries are already at higher risk because of their safety sensitive jobs. We urge employers to address fatigue risk in their workplace so all employees can be healthy and safe.”
   Transportation employees who reported at least one risk factor for fatigue identified sleep loss (48%) and long shifts (42%) as causes.
   NSC said that shift work such as rotating schedules, early morning or irregular shifts can disrupt the body’s internal clock. Returning to work with less than 12 hours off between shifts and working shifts lasting longer than 10 hours or weeks of more than 50 hours can also contribute. In transportation, 94% of employees reported two or more risk factors for fatigue, 86% noted the demands of the job and 64% said high-risk hours.