Too Tired to Work: Is Fatigue Compromising Your Jobsite Safety?

Seeing yawns and heavy eyelids on the jobsite? Don’t ignore them. According to a recent survey from the National Safety Council (NSC), 43 percent of Americans feel they are not getting enough sleep to function safely at work.

Lack of sleep can compromise workers’ ability to think clearly, make informed decisions, mitigate risks and be productive. On a construction site, the results can be deadly.

"When we're tired, we can put ourselves and others at risk," said Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of NSC. "We hope Americans recognize that impairment stems not just from alcohol and drugs, but lack of restorative rest — fitness for duty starts with getting a good night's sleep."

Research indicates that a person who loses two hours of sleep from a normal eight-hour sleep schedule may be as impaired as someone who has consumed up to three beers.

According to the survey report, jobs that require sustained attention or are physically demanding — in other words, most construction jobs — significantly increase the risk of fatigue. Other risk factors for worker fatigue include conditions typical of many construction projects, such as:

  • Working at night or in the early morning
  • Working long shifts without regular breaks
  • Working more than 50 hours each week

You can’t force employees to get more sleep, but you can take steps to help reduce worker fatigue and keep tired workers from hurting themselves or others.

Enforce breaks and limit overtime

Make sure workers are taking scheduled breaks, especially when it’s hot out. And consider creating a written policy that limits overtime.

The policy should outline procedures for reporting fatigue risks and encourage workers to speak up without fear of negative consequences. It should also include strategies for managing fatigued workers and educating workers on how to get better sleep at home.

If your employees are working excessive overtime or frequently swapping hours, it may mean you need to adjust your staffing levels. Encouraging overtime might seem more cost-effective, but over the long term you risk the significant costs of an accident, which could include OSHA fines and increased workers’ compensation rates, not to mention a reputation that could damage industry relationships.

Add stretching breaks

Most construction work is physical, so it may seem counterintuitive to add more movement into the work day. But the labor on a typical jobsite includes repetitive physical tasks, highly intensive tasks done in brief intervals, work done in extreme temperatures or the use of equipment with heavy vibrations. Research suggests all of these can contribute to worker fatigue, not to mention a host of physical problems. Stopping to stretch can help.

Stretching and low-intensity exercise can reduce fatigue and boost energy, and more general contractors are taking this fact to heart. The safety plan at Minneapolis-based Mortenson Construction, for example, encourages workers to begin the day with group stretching exercises. Skanska USA found that its group “Stretch & Flex” sessions helped workers shake off sleep and corresponded with a significant drop in back injuries and soft tissue injuries such as muscle tears.

Stretching is a great way to start the day, but a stretch break after lunch (construction fatalities peak at noon, according to one recent study) or toward the end of shifts can help reenergize fatigued workers.

Consider wearables to watch for worker fatigue

Wearable technology that monitors worker fatigue can offer an extra layer of protection.

Fatigue Science’s Readiband, for example, captures and analyzes sleep data to predict when worker fatigue will hit. The app helps workers — and managers — identify specific hours when a break may be needed or, in extreme cases, a shift should be reassigned. The app also shows workers how their sleep patterns affect their fatigue over time, which can motivate them to make positive lifestyle changes.

BBMV, a UK-based general contractor, has used Readiband to help supervisors on a massive underground infrastructure project in London watch and support at-risk workers. Having hard data on fatigue has also helped the construction crews and supervisors make adjustments to their sleep habits to reduce on-the-job fatigue.

Get your workers onboard

All of these safeguards demand some level of buy-in from workers. Let your employees know you take worker fatigue seriously, and they’ll take it seriously, too.

If you educate workers about the effects of fatigue and strategies they can use to get the shuteye they need, you’ll sleep better at night knowing you’ve created a safer jobsite.