Briefing on Fatigue in the Transport Industry

Login and add to My RMT

Briefing on Fatigue in the Transport Industry

This briefing has been written following a resolution to the National Conference of Station and Associated Grades 2012.

Fatigue is the decline in mental and/or physical performance that results from prolonged exertion, lack of quality sleep or disruption of the internal body clock. The degree to which a worker is prone to fatigue is also related to workload. For example, work that requires constant attention, is machine paced, complex or monotonous will increase the risk of fatigue.

A consensus view by scientists who study human performance and safety is that sleep is a powerful and vital biological need. Insufficient and disturbed sleep, chronic sleep loss and being awake for prolonged periods, increases the risk of errors and accidents.

Research reveals that when we are sleep deprived and/or fatigued, performance is affected and errors are more likely. This particularly applies to tasks that require:

•    vigilance and monitoring;
•    decision making;
•    awareness;
•    fast reaction time;
•    tracking ability;
•    memory.

For shift working to be successful, you need to maintain a satisfactory level of productivity and safety. Fatigued shift workers may perform less well than those working standard daytime hours, especially during periods of low alertness. The consequences of this could range from relatively minor events to serious accidents.

The risk of errors, accidents and injuries has been found:

•    to be higher on the night shift; 
•    to rise with increasing shift length over eight hours;
•    to increase over successive shifts, especially if they are night shifts;
•    to increase when there are not enough breaks.

Fatigue, night work and/or shift-working arrangements have been cited as major contributory factors in numerous well-documented accidents and incidents including Three Mile Island in 1979, Bhopal in 1984, Challenger Space Shuttle in 1986, Chernobyl in 1986, The Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987, Clapham Junction in 1988 and Exxon Valdez in 1989.

As a direct consequence of the Clapham Inquiry, industry adopted what became known as the ‘Hidden Limits’ on working time which were included in an appendix to Railway Group Standard GH/RT4004 (now withdrawn). The limits were generic (eg not specific to any particular group of safety critical workers) and reflected what was achievable in operational terms at the time, based on expert opinion and agreed good practice. Although not mandatory, they were recommendations to assist Infrastructure Mangers and Railway Undertakings comply with GH/RT4004 and Regulation 4 of The Railways (Safety Critical Work) Regulations, 1994. These last regulations were replaced by the Railway and other Guided Transport Systems Safety Regulations (ROGS) 2006. Specifically regulation 25 deals will fatigue. The ORR Guidance ‘Managing Rail Staff Fatigue’ published in December 2012 and consequently the RMT’s guide to using the ORR Guidance and the ORR’s nine step approach are tools that can be used in the management of fatigue.

The ‘Hidden Limits’, however, did not address all of the known causes of fatigue. There remained, therefore, no guarantee that workers would not continue to experience fatigue and therefore the risks to the operation of the railway were not effectively managed. For example, simply specifying a minimum rest period between shifts will not guarantee that a shift worker is fully recovered. The reason is that the extent of a person’s recovery will depend upon many factors. These include, for example, how much sleep a person has been able to obtain; the quality of that sleep; the extent to which the rest period coincides with the normal (circadian) cycle of the biological body clock; and the conscious effort on the part of the individual to obtain
sufficient sleep.

Known causes of fatigue are either work or non-work related, some of these are listed below.

The main work-related causes of fatigue include:

•    Long shifts, particularly those that impinge on the normal hours of sleep (eg nights and early starts).
•    Rapid turnarounds (eg insufficient time available between shifts for rest and      recovery).
•    High numbers of consecutive shifts
•    Inadequate breaks within a shift.
•    Variability in the shift pattern (eg a rotating shift pattern that changes about once a week; short notice changes to roster; backward rotating shifts; variable shift start times in a sequence of consecutive shifts).
•    Unplanned work (eg on-call duties; overtime; emergencies).
•    Commuting time.
•    Workload and nature of task.
•    Features of the work environment (eg temperature, noise, vibration).

The level of work-related fatigue will be similar across individuals performing the same tasks. It should therefore be assessed and managed at the organisational level.

The main non-work related causes of fatigue include:
•    Domestic and family circumstances that may cause sleep disruption.
•    Health (eg sleep disorders).
•    Individual differences (eg body clock and preferences for certain shifts; age).
•    Strenuous activities, such as second jobs.
•    Lifestyle (eg diet; alcohol and drugs).
•    Stress (eg physical, mental or emotional response to external events).

Non-work related causes of fatigue are best managed at the individual level as the impact of different factors will vary considerably. Employers should ensure however
that employees are aware of the (non work-related) risks and know how and where to go for further information and support (eg Occupational Health department).

Professor Andy Smith of Cardiff University carried out a study into fatigue seafarers working for P&O Ferries in 2011. The main issues covered in this study were hours of work; watch-keeping; factors causing fatigue; symptoms of fatigue; fatigue during and after work; job characteristics and wellbeing.

•    Hours of Work. Periods of duty and rest were within mandatory requirements and guidelines. Nearly half of the respondents felt that their working hours presented a danger either to them or the ship.
•    Watch-keeping. Approximately half of the watch-keepers suffered from fatigue on watch.
•    Factors Causing Fatigue. The major factors were job demands, working hours, length of tour of duty, number of crossings, speed of port turnaround, bad weather, noise and vibration, sleep problems and extra duties such as the life boat drill. Over half the respondents reported these problems
•    Symptoms of Fatigue. Lethargy, poor quality sleep, tension and loss of concentration were frequent problems. All groups reported that the effects of fatigue increased the longer they were onboard and continued into leave.
•    Performance and Safety. Both marine and customer service crew reported more frequent involvement in fatigue-related incidents or accidents.
•    Fatigue During and After Work. All groups reported feeling sleepy and tired at work (at least 2 or 3 times a week). Similarly, all groups reported frequent mental and physical fatigue at the end of the working day.
•    Stress at Work. In a similar survey carried out in 200, 14.6% of the crew were very or extremely stressed at work. In the 2011 survey, the level of stress had increased with 25.4% of the marine crew reporting they were very or extremely stressed at work.
•    Sleep. All samples reported difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep and getting up.

The research concluded that crew were exposed to a number of factors that induce fatigue. He states that there is also an association between fatigue and reduced operational performance and safety.

The report recommendations included the following:

•    Continue with fatigue audits in all crew
•    Address certain specific issues that clearly influenced the survey
•    Set up a working group with all stakeholders (management, unions and Professor Smith) to consider all possible changes to working practices
•    Treat fatigue as a health and safety issue. Crew should be provided with appropriate information about awareness of fatigue and prevention and management of it. This should include information on how to prevent poor sleep. Any training should also be evaluated and regular surveys could effectively do this.
•    Carry out more detailed audit of safety critical tasks such as watch-keeping

Research shows that a considerable proportion of vehicle accidents are sleep related and it is believed that up to 20% of serious accidents are caused by fatigue. There are strict rules governing the amount of hours that PSV/PCV and HGV drivers can work, however, these still do not prevent fatigue from occurring. RMT conducted a survey on bus drivers in 2008 and the results indicated that long hours were still a problem for drivers, despite there being legislation in place for limits on driving hours.

HGV/PSV drivers who drive only in the UK (under 50 miles) are governed by UK domestic driving limits, whereas those who travel within the EU or drive vehicles over 3.5 tonnes need to abide by EU limits which are more stringent than the domestic laws. Currently, the maximum hours at the wheel without a break for UK PSV/HGV drivers is 5.5 hours whereas the EU limit is an hour less at 4.5 hours.

Fatigue may be more of a problem for coach drivers due to longer driving distances on motorways, but given the amount of distractions and high level of concentration needed by urban bus drivers, fatigue is also be an issue for this group. Fatigue can be effectively managed by a Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS). This is a scientifically-based data-driven system which manages employee fatigue in a flexible manner appropriate to the level of risk exposure and the nature of the operation. FRMS can be used in addition to prescriptive hours of work limitations. The traditional method of mitigating driver fatigue has been to limit driver‘s time at the wheel.

RMT joined UNITE in a campaign entitled Safer Way, which seeks to reduce driving hours for domestic drivers by one hour to set the limit at the wheel at 4.5 hours. The Department for Transport’s ‘Tiredness Kills’ campaign encourages car drivers to take a 15 minute break every two hours of driving, the same should be applied to bus and coach drivers. What also needs to be taken into consideration is that drivers have other duties besides driving. For the most part they must also check the vehicle for defects and in the case of coach drivers emptying toilet tanks is another task to fulfill.

The main aspirations of the Safer Way campaign are:

•    Normal hours of work should not exceed forty hours per week
•    Normal hours of work should not exceed  eight per day as average
•    Minimum duration of the weekly rest should be twenty four hours preceded or followed by the daily rest
•    Avoid split shifts
•    Choose forward rotation: early – day – late

In conclusion, fatigue is a serious issue that needs to be managed effectively. Any Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS) should include consultation with Union Reps who will look at rosters, time off and risk assessments to ensure that fatigue is being managed properly. The result of not managing fatigue correctly is a reduction of safety which in turn can lead to accidents – some of which are devastating and fatal.