Learning from similar organisations about how they manage fatigue and other workplace road safety risks, and going beyond the usual approach and examining a key underlying cause of fatigue.

Asleep at the wheel

Sleep expert Dr Carmel Harrington presented the ‘science of sleep’, explaining why sleep is important to brain, physical and mental health and our ability to perform.

While Carmel acknowledged there were many elements to managing fatigue, increasing understanding of sleep and how it affects fatigue helped manage fatigue risks, she said.

Policies on fatigue are often aimed at compliance rather than engaging staff in understanding the role quality sleep plays in managing fatigue. The prevailing attitude in the industry is often ‘I’m tough’ or ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’ with not sleeping considered demonstrating commitment to the job.

“Incrementally, without realising it, we’ve cut back on sleep time – 50 years ago our average sleep was 8.5 hours, now we sleep on average 6.7 hours each weekday, that’s a 20% decrease,” Carmel said.

“So it’s like the food story and exercise story. We didn’t know how important exercise was until our incidental exercise was taken away due to easy access to cars and transport. We didn’t realise how important food was until, with the easy availability of supermarkets and fast food, we started eating too much junk food.”

“As a result, in both cases, public education campaigns were undertaken to educate us on the importance of good quality exercise and food. Now we’ve cut back on sleep due to technology, 24/7, increasing business demands and globalisation of the world and we’ve given up something that we didn’t know was basic to health. There is now a need to educate people on the fundamental importance of sleep to our health and wellbeing, and that food, exercise and sleep are our three pillars of health.”

The network of shared ideas

Andrew Murphy, from Energy Queensland, which includes Ergon Network and Energex, believes Energy Queensland manages fatigue well, particular for its field workforce, but transferring that to the executive pool and building understanding about sleep’s role in fatigue were challenges.

Energy Queensland has a fatigue calculator that gives its 3000+ field workforce an indication of their level of fatigue and Andrew is interested in exploring how fatigue influences driving behaviour and the role technology plays in managing fatigue.

“The most valuable thing I get out of the forum is talking to other people who are having the same issues we are and working together on what they’ve done and what we’re going to do to improve that issue,” Andrew said.

“Certainly the fatigue information was a bit of an eye-opener. I think we manage fatigue very well for blue collar operators and in particular in a major event like a cyclone or flood, we excel in that for field staff, but I think we need to educate more about sleep.

“It’s ok to manage your work environment and manage how long you’re on the job but actually managing sleep outside that time and educating individuals about their own fatigue.”

Brad Towns, from SA Water, had similar views, suggesting networking and sharing knowledge among similar organisations was the key forum outcome. In particular, he found information about how other utilities were utilising In Vehicle Monitoring Systems (IVMS) helpful.

He believes SA Water also manages fatigue well, particularly in emergency situations. Building on fatigue training already delivered, by incorporating an understanding of how sleep affects fatigue, and introducing an app to help field staff manage fatigue were next on the agenda. Managing differing fleet categories was another workplace road safety issue for SA Water.

“We’re in the planning/implementation stage with IVMS, what we want to work out is how and what we want to collect and report on and I got some great information from other organisations on what they’ve done,” Brad said.

“I’m also still unpacking the discussion around the link between fatigue and distraction and how that impacts businesses. I had a discussion with another partner in a networking situation and the penny dropped for me, looking at fatigue and distraction.

“If we look at how the brain reacts to fatigue, our brain is a box to process everything. When we get fatigued, that box gets smaller, requiring the brain to shed information input.

“When you’re driving, it becomes harder to focus on what you’re doing, peripheral vision and focus narrows as fatigue sets in. Then throw in the phone ringing and our brain finds it hard to process all the information inputs and needs to give something up to process the phone call. That’s the key link between fatigue and distraction. They’re issues I’d like to explore further.”

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