Toolbox Topic: Worker Fatigue
Worker fatigue is not talked about often enough in safety. In this episode, we will discuss the dangers of worker fatigue and some tips for avoiding it.
Definitions of Worker Fatigue
The CDC defines fatigue as ” weariness, tiredness or lack of energy.” In workplace settings, it is commonly associated with nonstandard schedules, such as night shift work and extended work hours, which disrupt or shorten sleep. Fatigue can also be related to other workplace factors such as stress, physically or mentally demanding tasks, or working in hot environments. It can stem from several factors, and its effects extend beyond sleepiness. In general, fatigue can slow down reaction times, reduce attention or concentration, limit short-term memory and impair judgment.
The Model T
In 1908 there were fewer than 200,000 cars on the road. The first Model T was completed and released that year. At first, it was expensive, costing approximately $825, or about $18,000 in today’s money. It could run on gasoline or hemp-based fuel and topped out at 40 miles per hour. Between 1908 and 1927, Ford would build 15 million Model T’s. It was the longest run of any automobile model in history until 1972, when VW’s Beetle surpassed it.
Ford kept prices low by building just one model. The company developed a system of interchangeable parts that reduced waste and saved time. It made assembly relatively simple for unskilled workers.
The Assembly Line
Although this created efficiency, working on the assembly line was brutal. It required doing one task endlessly and repetitively all day for 9 hours. Most men couldn’t stand it for very long, and after a few months, they would quit. Since the assembly line was a low-skill job, it made it easy to retrain new workers. Most men could be trained in half a day, but even so, the company couldn’t replace workers fast enough. Ford Motor Company had a 300% per year turnover! This situation made it extremely difficult to keep the assembly line going consistently.
Better Working Hours and Wages
Ford had a solution, and in 1914, he suddenly and very dramatically raised worker pay by more than double! The previous rate was $2.34 for nine hours. So, he raised it to $5 a day, and at the same time, he cut working hours to just 8 hours per shift. Many of his rivals thought that Ford had lost his mind and, in fact, accused Ford of unfair business practices. The Wall Street Journal even editorialized that this was an economic crime!
The workers didn’t seem to share that opinion. Being paid $5 a day was far better than they could get elsewhere. This move created workforce stability. Instead of having a labor shortage, Ford had thousands of applicants on a waiting list. Also, the men who got the jobs kept them. The quality of the product increased, and stoppages on the line occurred less frequently.
The price of model T’s dropped significantly over time. By 1916 the price was down to $360 with no change in quality. Meanwhile, production time fell from 14 hours to just an hour and a half per car.
A New Market
The assembly line made it possible to produce literally thousands of cars a week and by 1924, the Dearborn, Michigan plant could cast more than 10,000 Model T cylinder blocks in a day.
Ford soon realized that he was making so many cars that he needed to extend the number of potential consumers who could buy them. By paying higher wages, he turned his workforce into such a group. For the first time, the people making the cars could buy one. With the help of installment payments, they could become proud owners of their very own model T’s.
In 1926, Ford Motor Company became one of the first companies in America to standardize a five-day, 40-hour week.
Statistics on Worker Fatigue
According to research, 37% of workers get less than seven hours of sleep. Not surprisingly, 61% of night-shift workers get less than seven hours of sleep. (Yong et al., 2017).
Data from 29 states shows that low sleep duration varies widely by occupation. The occupations with the highest prevalence of low sleep duration include:
• Healthcare support and healthcare practitioners
• Technical employees
Around forty percent of workers in each of those occupational groups frequently get less than seven hours of sleep.
U.S. workers who sleep less than five hours per day have an estimated annual injury rate of 7.89 per 100 workers. This rate is substantially higher compared with those who tend to sleep between seven and eight hours, coming in at only 2.27 per 100 workers.
Safety Tips on Worker Fatigue
Safety Tip#1 Understand the Causes of Fatigue and Know the Signs
Fatigue is generally caused by long periods of physical and mental exertion without rest and recovery or spending long periods without sleep. Signs of fatigue can include:
• Confusion and memory problems
• Difficulty concentrating
• Impaired focus and slowed reaction times
• Increased errors
• Difficulty keeping your eyes open
• Feeling physically or mentally exhausted
• Continuously yawning
Safety Tip #2 Understand the Risks of Fatigue
Fatigue can impact performance and productivity and can increase the potential for injuries. Employees with fatigue have an increased risk of developing obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and sleep apnea.
Operating an automobile can be very dangerous when you have had less than five hours of sleep. While driving, lack of sleep or fatigue can have the same effects on the body as being intoxicated.
Safety Tip #3 Avoid Fatigue
Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest. The best way to avoid fatigue is by getting some quality shut eye. The following can help you get the best sleep:
• Make the room as dark and quiet as possible
• Do not disturb! Ask family, friends, or roommates not to interrupt your sleep
• Unwind before trying to go to sleep
• Consult a doctor if necessary
Safety Tip #4 Ask for Help
Use a buddy system. Tell a coworker if you are having issues with fatigue and ask them to be alert for signs of excessive fatigue such as yawning, head dropping, and difficulty remembering or concentrating. In addition, change up your work routine if possible. Vary tasks and take breaks.
Safety Tip #5 Excessive Fatigue
Do not work if you have excessive fatigue that threatens the safety of yourself or others. If, at any time, fatigue interferes with your ability to do your job safely, make sure you talk to your supervisor. Find a solution that maintains your safety and the safety of those around you.