News & Views

Fatigue – A Topic Best Not Slept Upon

Let’s face it, who doesn’t appreciate a good night’s sleep, and as we wake each day who of us wouldn’t benefit from a few extra minutes, or even hours beneath the duvet? However, in the workplace, on site or operating heavy plant, fatigue in the workplace is extremely serious, posing a real and present risk for health and safety.

The nebulous nature of fatigue makes quantifying risk extremely difficult, especially as its impact is not always obvious with its presence and manifestation being graduated according to individual needs. However, figures [HSE 2017] suggest fatigue is said to cost the UK around £115 – £240 million per year in terms of work accidents per year.

The Federation of Piling Specialists (FPS) recognises that many within its sector often work and travel long hours. Setting aside the long hours worked, all too often the travel time is excluded from what people consider their working day and together this can lead to fatigue, which is known to impact negatively on performance and increases the likelihood of accidents.

Against this backdrop, the FPS has commissioned a technical research project into the prevalence of fatigue and more importantly into its impact on the working capabilities of individuals. The research project will be undertaken in partnership with a company called Fatigue Science that specialises in providing predictive human performance data in heavy industry, elite sports, and military. Through projects like ours these sectors have acquired a far greater appreciation of the impact of sleep on performance and taken action accordingly. For instance, most Premier League football clubs now have sleep pods at their training grounds and Cristiano Ronaldo employs a personal sleep coach. Using its wristband to analyse state of fatigue, the study will aim to understand the impact of different working patterns on health, wellbeing and performance and even identifying when workers are at most risk and when they are most alert.

Once a significant volume of data has been collected, it should be possible to better understand the circumstances under which people are getting fatigued. It should also even identify individuals who are suffering from chronic fatigue and enable them and the company they work for to consider alternative working conditions and put in place measure to ensure greater recovery. As a trade organisation, the data should help identify trends in how fatigue is affected by particular techniques or travel patterns.

For the wider construction industry, it is hoped that the results can be used to affect change as whole for the better of all workers. Poor mental health is a huge concern within the sector and studies have linked a lack of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep to increased anxiety and a loss of cognitive functioning. Fortunately, there is already an increasing awareness of how a lack of deep sleep can impact on our memories and make us more susceptible to infections. Books like Matthew Walker’s excellent best seller “Why we sleep” and comedian David Baddiel’s podcast series “Sleeping” will assist.

Fatigue monitoring should be as common as more traditional aspects of health and safety management. Indeed it will form part of the next the next FPS audit. The use of wrist band technology as a tool to mitigate risk will be particularly beneficial for shift workers. These individuals can struggle to adjust their Circadian rhythms to the irregular time keeping. These are the daily physical, mental and behavioural changes that follow a daily cycle and cause our body to release chemicals such as dopamine, adrenaline and serotonin which help us be alert or feel sleepy at the appropriate time of day.

Obviously, and without pre-empting results, which will be independent, any findings that suggest fatigue is a problem within the sector, it is hoped it will start a conversation about addressing the long hours culture that exists within the construction sector, and present motivators to change it. This in turn will help the construction sector, and the piling industry specifically, drive positive change in welfare, accommodation provision and working patterns, which would be beneficial in the FPS’s strive for conditions which aid recruitment, retention and diversity.

The study is already underway, with FPS member companies being recruited to take part, and if all goes to schedule it is hoped the results will be published late 2020.

Fatigue is real, it does impact working and is a real pressure on the health, safety and wellbeing of those working in the construction sector. Sourcing data and sharing its impact is long overdue, and not something we can sleep on for another day!

By Steve Hadley, Vice Chair, Federation of Piling Specialists