Managing Workplace Fatigue Risks During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Supermarket Worker
May 07, 2020

Many companies have suspended operations temporarily due to COVID-19, but many others considered to be essential businesses continue to operate. For these organizations, workplace safety and health not only remain important, but become even more relevant.

A number of essential businesses may have transitioned from regular hours to 24-hour and 7-days-a-week operations, and longer shifts and hours for employees. This is why it’s good to be reminded that there is a clear connection between worker fatigue and safety.

Drowsiness, distraction and lack of alertness associated with fatigue can have serious impacts on workers and organizations, and create risks of injuries and fatalities.

According to the National Safety Council, 97% of all American workers have at least one risk factor of fatigue, and 43% of workers are not getting the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per day. This reduces productivity and efficiency, and increases the risk of incidents.

But there are four things that employers can do to reduce risks associated with fatigue during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Frequent and Short Breaks

Regular breaks during a work shift allow for both physical and mental recovery. Short, frequent breaks (e.g. 10-15 minutes every two hours) are better than a single longer break in the middle of a shift. Short breaks help employees to clear their heads and feel refreshed when transitioning between tasks.

A dedicated break room is also recommended. Employers should also consider spreading these shorter, more frequent breaks so that employees can maintain social (or physical) distance. They should try to avoid situations where many employees have their breaks at exactly the same time.

Planned Days Off

Companies should plan for regular and predictable blocks of days off. Workers should be provided as much advance notice as possible of long blocks of workdays so they can relax during their time off. Sometimes governments may even take the lead. For example, the Canadian province of Québec has ordered most grocery stores to be closed on Sundays to give employees a much-deserved time off.

During a pandemic, some workers, especially in healthcare, may be working extended shifts with fewer days off. But paid rest periods after many workdays allow workers to sleep well and return to work with more energy and alertness.

Consistent Work Schedules

Planned, consistent work schedules allow workers to better plan for sleep during their time between work periods, even if work is scheduled for early morning or overnight. Limiting shift work is typically preferable because most humans are naturally at a low energy point between midnight and 6am.

Carefully planning shift schedules can allow business operations to continue with fewer workers on site at a time, which also helps to maintain physical distance.

Fatigue Reporting System

The COVID-19 pandemic will end one day. But risks of fatigue-related incidents will remain. That’s why organizations should implement a fatigue reporting system, especially in such industries like transportation, to ensure that employees in critical jobs are fit for work. The system does not have to be a completely different software platform. An existing EHS software system can be leveraged.

In addition, fatigue risk factors (e.g. time of day, type of task) can be recorded and tracked in EHS software. It’s expected that fatigue risks increase during pandemic conditions. A fatigue reporting system can help to monitor and control risk even when conditions return to normal.

     
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Author

JG

Jean-Grégoire Manoukian

Content Thought Leader