Mining is a 24/7 business and many companies are stretched by increasing demands, fierce competition and global operations that span multiple times zones. From exploration and production, to transportation, refining and distribution, the mining industry does not sleep. On the other hand employees do sleep – or at least need to.
What is fatigue and why is it an issue?
Fatigue can be defined as a progressive decline in alertness and performance, which may be caused by factors such as extended working hours with insufficient sleep being the key contributor, shift work, medical conditions and the effects of drugs and alcohol (1). Fatigue impairs our performance, and particularly in safety critical industries such as mining, can contribute to serious incidents. This is in part due to the cognitive impacts of fatigue and can include a reduced ability to focus attention, a complete momentary loss of attention, micro sleep, decreased speed and accuracy, impaired ability to assess risks, impaired comprehension, impaired ability to accurately monitor performance, and increased risk taking (1).
The impact that fatigue can have on performance and safety is not widely recognised and is generally underestimated. One of the key reasons for this lack of awareness is that fatigue cannot be directly measured. There is no chemical in the blood or any biological specimen that can give an accurate indication of how mentally tired a worker is. To improve our appreciation of fatigue and its consequences for performance, researches have compared the effects to those of alcohol intoxication.
How long has fatigue in mining been an issue?
Fatigue has been a long standing issue within the mining industry. A study published in 2007 by Caterpillar Global Mining, indicates up to 65% of truck haulage accidents in mining operations are directly related to operator fatigue (3). There were a further percentage of cases where fatigue was a contributor but not the sole cause. However, fatigue resulted in an operator’s inability to adequately manage a high risk situation, such as a technical fault, resulting in an incident.
For employers in the mining industry, fatigue is more than just ‘a bad night’s sleep’. Fatigued employees can mean serious occupational risk as well as billions of dollars annually in lost productivity, absenteeism, presenteeism and other expenses.
Within the mining industry, regulatory and organisational approaches are primarily the centre of conventional strategies for mitigating the effects of fatigue in shift work. Some of these approaches include training and education programs as well as restrictions to hours of duty. Although such approaches are vital for any fatigue management plan, as well as essential to improving workplace alertness, productivity and safety, it is important to note that fatigue is an inevitable effect of shift work. Effectively managing fatigue requires a comprehensive and integrated strategy. This involves a program consisting of:
- evaluating practices and policies
- training employees in the self-management of fatigue
- training employees in identifying fatigue risk factors
- an ongoing evaluation and review of organisational effort
The current best practice approach is formulation of an integrated Fatigue Risk Management System which falls within the Safety Management System. The conceptual approach starts with thorough pre-employment assessments to identify candidates with a potential for fatigue and sleeping disorders. Moving forward, there is a requirement for regular review of organisational practices such as rosters and shifts to minimise the potential for fatigue.
It is also essential that employees receive education and training on developing the attitudes and skills necessary to manage their fatigue. An important part of any fatigue management strategy consists of training all employees about the safety hazards of fatigue and how effectively to manage them. Ongoing fatigue training and education needs to be implemented to achieve this goal. In attempts to move beyond simply raising awareness, it is ideal that a holistic program is designed to promote the development of skills relevant to fatigue risk management within your organisation.
It is equally important for supervisors to have opportunities to gain knowledge, skills and willingness to actively monitor fatigue, to foster a culture that supports employee self-management, and to take early and appropriate action where doubt exists about an individual’s capacity to carry out their assigned tasks safely. Supervisors are responsible on the front line for detecting employee fatigue as well as protecting the safety, productivity and bottom line profits of your company. Supervisor training in fatigue should aim at improving the knowledge and skills to be able to effectively:
- influence and oversight of staffing levels on employee fatigue
- schedule work to minimize the risk fatigue
- manage a team of employees to minimize fatigue risk within the group
- recognise warning signs of fatigue and understand company policies to address potential problems
- perform periodic reviews of guidelines for achieving continuous improvement in the fatigue management program
There needs to be an ongoing and effective strategy to promote employee capacity to manage fatigue and to assist and manage employees whose fitness for work is compromised by fatigue. There is dual responsibility for fatigue management between employer and employees but the primary duty of care lies with the employer.
What makes an effective Fatigue Management Plan?
Legislation requires that mine sites conduct a Fatigue Risk Assessment and implement a Fatigue Management Plan in order to manage fatigue issues. Fatigue Management Plans attempt to maintain, and where possible enhance safety, performance and productivity as well as manage the risk of fatigue in the workplace. All aspects of a Fatigue Management Plan should be audited and reviewed at regular intervals to ensure continuing suitability, adequacy and effectiveness of controls for managing the risk. A mine site’s Fatigue Management Plan should cover managers, professional staff, contractors and those who work on planned rosters and unplanned work. Key considerations should include:
- commuting and travel times
- shift schedule design workload including staffing levels and overtime
- the work activity
- shift timing and duration and length of roster
An effective Fatigue Management Plan details a systematic approach and needs to include firm policy commitment to fatigue management, a flexible approach sensitive enough to accommodate different views, and a process that includes education and communication. The best practice approach to fatigue management, within the fatigue management plan, is using a defences-in-depth approach with multiple layers of safety defences.
Reason (the pioneer in this field and well-known for his ‘Swiss Cheese Model’) argues that multiples layers are the key to mitigating risk (2). This is also relevant to reducing the risk of fatigue hazard progressing to an incident.
The Swiss Cheese model shows the importance of using multiple measures to prevent fatigue risks. The holes in the cheese can be seen as weaknesses to prevent errors, and therefore fatigue related incidents and injuries (4).
How does safety culture play a role in basic fatigue management?
It is not just enough to have sufficient planning, policies, practices and procedures in place. A key consideration in improving fatigue management practices is the organisations safety culture.
Although safety culture has been a topic of focus in recent years, it is still commonly underestimated in its ability to positively contribute to fatigue management and safety performance in general. As a part of a holistic approach, we can improve fatigue issues through addressing negative attitudes and beliefs that fatigue management comes at the expense of productivity. Although procedures and policies to promote fatigue management is central, it is absolutely critical we instill the right mind set and embed positive safety behaviours and attitudes in regards to fatigue management throughout our organisations. This should include an open and just reporting system for fatigue hazards, prompt feedback from management; and worker flexibility and ownership for safety.
The road ahead
The Mining industry has come a long way in recent years in the area of fatigue. However, there is still a long way to travel on the journey to optimal fatigue management. Reviewing Fatigue Management Plans regularly is vital to ensure the fatigue risk management is being continually updated and improved for optimal management in the area of fatigue. Fatigue Management needs to be underpinned by proactive and preventative strategies rather than waiting to act once incidents occur. Only then will fatigue in mining be truly managed and the goal of zero harm becomes a possibility.
- Managing Fatigue in the Workplace, Guide, IPIECA – OGP
- Reason J. Human error: models and management, BMJ. 2000;320:768-770 (2000)
- Viewpoint: Perspectives on Modern Mining (2007), Caterpillar Global Mining
- Swiss Cheese model of accident causation, Dante Orlandella and James T. Reason of the University of Manchester (Reason 1990).
- Department of Industry and Resources(1999) Guideline: Safety and Health risk Management in Mining, Western Australia
- MIAC, Code of Practice, Working Hours 2006