Workplace Fatigue: Employer’s Role in Improving Work Environments

office worker under sleep deprivation

Workplace Fatigue: Long Hours and Irregular Shifts

Workplace fatigue is a state of physical and mental exhaustion that can significantly impact employee safety, productivity, and overall well-being. It's more than just feeling tired; fatigued workers have impaired judgment, reaction time, and decision-making abilities, increasing the risk of accidents and injuries. Beyond the safety concerns, fatigue can lead to decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, and lower employee morale. Employers have a legal and ethical responsibility to provide a safe work environment, and this includes taking steps to prevent and manage fatigue-related risks.

Causes of Workplace Fatigue

    • Shift Work & Long Hours: Irregular shift patterns and extended work periods can severely disrupt natural sleep cycles, leading to fatigue or sleep disorders. Night shift workers or workers in rotating shifts often struggle to get enough restorative sleep and better sleep quality, resulting in chronic tiredness.
    • Work Environment: Poor lighting, extreme temperatures, and high noise levels are environmental factors that contribute to employee fatigue. These conditions make it difficult for employees to stay alert and focused, increasing the risk of accidents and errors.
    • Workload & Understaffing: Excessive workloads, tight deadlines, and insufficient staffing levels place tremendous pressure on employees, draining their energy and leading to worker fatigue. Overworked employees are more likely to make mistakes and have lower productivity levels.
    • Stress & Mental Health: Chronic stress and mental health issues are closely linked to fatigue. Stress from job demands, personal life, or a combination of both can exhaust employees mentally and physically, diminishing their ability to function effectively at work.


What OSHA Says about Work Fatigue

OSHA highlights that long work hours, extended work hours, and irregular schedules can cause sleep deprivation and lead to significant fatigue. OSHA reports that many American workers spend over 40 hours a week at work, with nearly 15 million working full-time on evening, night, rotating, or other irregular shifts. These demanding work schedules can lead to significant worker fatigue in the workplace.

Shift workers often face varied schedules, including days, evenings, nights, and rotating or on-call shifts. These shifts can be extended (lasting more than 8 hours), irregular, or consecutive, resulting in work weeks that exceed the typical 40 hours. While there is no specific OSHA fatigue rule, OSHA enforces regulations that indirectly address these issues through the general duty clause and other safety standards. Key points include:

General Duty Clause: Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act's General Duty Clause, employers are required to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm. This includes providing a fatigue risk management system.


Recognizing Signs of Workplace Fatigue

Recognizing the signs of workplace fatigue is crucial for maintaining a safe and productive work environment. Here are common symptoms that employees might exhibit when experiencing fatigue:

  • Persistent fatigue or drowsiness: Employees may feel constantly exhausted and struggle to stay awake, even after getting enough sleep.
  • Muscle fatigue or aches: Workers might experience a general sense of muscle weakness, discomfort, or soreness, making physical tasks more challenging.
  • Frequent headaches: Employees could suffer from regular headaches, which can range from mild to severe, impacting their ability to focus and work effectively.
  • Lightheadedness: Feeling dizzy or unsteady can be common, increasing the risk of accidents and affecting overall stability.
  • Slowed reaction times: Workers may notice that their reflexes are slower than usual, leading to delayed responses in critical situations.
  • Impaired decision-making or judgment: Work related fatigue can make it difficult for employees to think clearly, resulting in poor decisions and increased errors.
  • Visual blurriness: Employees might experience blurred vision, making it hard to read, operate machinery, or perform tasks requiring precision.
  • Inability to concentrate: Reduced alertness and difficulty focusing on tasks can lead to decreased productivity and a higher likelihood of mistakes.


Effects of Fatigue in the Workplace

worker fatigue in the manufacturing

Workplace fatigue can have significant negative impacts on various aspects of the work environment. According to OSHA Work Fatigue Hazards, accident and injury rates are 18% higher during evening shifts and 30% higher during night shifts compared to day shifts. Research also shows that working 12-hour shifts is linked to a 37% increased risk of injury.

Below are several critical impacts of fatigue in the workplace:

    • Increased Risk of Accidents and Injuries: Fatigued employees are more likely to make errors and react slowly to hazards, leading to a higher incidence of workplace accidents and injuries.
    • Reduced Productivity: Fatigue diminishes an employee's ability to concentrate and perform tasks efficiently, resulting in lower overall productivity.
    • Poor Decision-Making: Impaired judgment and cognitive function due to fatigue can lead to poor decisions, negatively affecting operations and safety.
    • Higher Absenteeism: Chronic fatigue often results in higher absenteeism rates as employees take more sick days due to physical and mental exhaustion.
    • Decreased Employee Morale: Persistent fatigue can lower employee morale and job satisfaction, leading to a less motivated and engaged workforce.


Employer’s Role in Fatigue Management in the Workplace

Employers have a critical role in managing and mitigating the risks associated with stress and fatigue in the workplace. OSHA emphasizes the importance of recognizing the symptoms of worker fatigue and understanding its potential impact on safety and health. Key recommendations from OSHA to reduce fatigue include:

Limiting Shift Lengths

Employers should aim to limit shifts to 8-10 hours to minimize the risk of fatigue. Extended shifts should be minimized, as longer hours increase the likelihood of errors and accidents. By keeping shifts manageable, employers can help ensure that employees remain alert and productive throughout their workday.

Scheduling Adequate Rest Periods

Frequent breaks during shifts are essential to help employees recover and maintain their energy levels. Employers should enforce mandatory rest periods and ensure employees have sufficient time off between shifts. Adequate rest allows employees to recharge, reducing the risk of fatigue-related incidents.

Careful Planning of Rotating Shifts

When rotating shifts are necessary, employers should design schedules that allow for adequate rest and adjustment periods. Rotations should be planned to minimize disruption to employees' sleep habits, such as using forward-rotating schedules (morning to evening to night shifts) to make the adjustment easier. Proper planning can minimize sleep disruption and help maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Monitoring Work Hours

Employers should keep track of the total hours worked by employees to prevent excessive overtime. Ensuring compliance with labor laws regarding maximum working hours is crucial. Monitoring work hours helps identify and address potential fatigue risks before they become problematic.

Promoting Healthy Practices

Encouraging healthy eating, regular physical activity, and stress management can help mitigate the effects of long work hours and irregular shifts. Employers can provide resources such as access to nutritious meals, fitness programs, and stress reduction workshops. These practices contribute to overall employee well-being and resilience against fatigue.

Education and Training

Educating employees about the signs of fatigue and the importance of rest can empower them to manage their own fatigue. Training programs should cover fatigue risk management strategies and emphasize the importance of adhering to rest breaks and avoiding insufficient sleep. Informed employees are more likely to take proactive steps to prevent fatigue.

Creating a Supportive Environment

Employers should foster a work culture where employees feel comfortable reporting fatigue without fear of repercussions. Open communication about workload and fatigue levels should be encouraged, and adjustments should be made as necessary to ensure employee well-being. A supportive environment helps build trust and promotes a collaborative approach to fatigue management.


FAQs about Work Fatigue

What are the three types of fatigue?

  1. Physical Fatigue: Caused by prolonged physical exertion, leading to muscle weakness and soreness.
  2. Mental Fatigue: Results from prolonged periods of cognitive activity, causing difficulty concentrating and making decisions.
  3. Emotional Fatigue: Stemming from stress and emotional strain, resulting in feelings of overwhelm and burnout.

What is workplace fatigue?

Workplace fatigue is a state of physical and/or mental exhaustion that reduces an employee's ability to perform their job safely and effectively. It is often caused by long hours, irregular shifts, high workloads, and environmental factors.

Is fatigue a safety hazard?

Yes, fatigue is a significant workplace safety hazard. It impairs judgment, reduces alertness, slows reaction times, and increases the likelihood of accidents and errors in the workplace.

What environmental factors can have a significant effect on worker fatigue?

Environmental factors such as poor lighting, extreme temperatures, high noise levels, and inadequate ventilation can significantly contribute to worker fatigue by creating uncomfortable and distracting work conditions.

How to fix fatigue at work?

To address fatigue at work, employers can implement balanced schedules, ensure adequate staffing, provide regular breaks, promote healthy practices, and encourage open communication about fatigue. Employees should also prioritize rest, maintain a healthy diet, stay hydrated, and manage stress effectively.


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The material provided in this article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended to replace professional/legal advice or substitute government regulations, industry standards, or other requirements specific to any business/activity. While we made sure to provide accurate and reliable information, we make no representation that the details or sources are up-to-date, complete or remain available. Readers should consult with an industrial safety expert, qualified professional, or attorney for any specific concerns and questions.


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Author: Herbert Post

Born in the Philadelphia area and raised in Houston by a family who was predominately employed in heavy manufacturing. Herb took a liking to factory processes and later safety compliance where he has spent the last 13 years facilitating best practices and teaching updated regulations. He is married with two children and a St Bernard named Jose. Herb is a self-described compliance geek. When he isn’t studying safety reports and regulatory interpretations he enjoys racquetball and watching his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.