Rail Industry Focus

01.11.19

The dangers of fatigues

Source: RTM Oct/Nov 2019

 

Working long hours, poor health, too little sleep, a demanding job and more can all make us tired and affect our mental and physical performance – and when we’re fatigued we make more mistakes.

Fatigue makes us less alert, less aware of our surroundings, and less able to process information. 

Our decision-making and memory suffer, and these effects are dangerous if we’re doing anything where safety is critical, whether driving a train or road vehicle, working on track, or carrying out signalling or maintenance duties.  Yet it’s possible to miss fatigue warning signs – those lapses of attention or even briefly nodding off.

The Clapham Junction collision in 1988 illustrated the tragic consequences of fatigue, when inadequate controls for overtime contributed to a wiring error that killed 35 people.  A survey published by RSSB this year found 16% had experienced a fatigue-related incident at work.  Of these, 55% said they’d had more than one incident.

To control risk, it’s vital to minimise fatigue.  But there’s no silver bullet - what’s needed is a comprehensive range of measures, including:

  • Fatigue-friendly working patterns designed by people trained in how work patterns affect our opportunity to get the sleep we need
  • Assessing work patterns using all of the following:       
  • Minimise fatigue factors (limiting shift lengths, consecutive shifts, etc)
  • Use a bio-mathematical fatigue model, but don’t treat model predictions as gospel- all have their limitations
  • Get feedback from the people working on the ground about their concerns and ideas for improvement. Simple fatigue rating scales and surveys help identify and prioritise areas for improvement.
  • Robust arrangements for controlling and monitoring working hours, including any work-relating driving.
  • Educating staff and managers on the causes and effects of fatigue, how to avoid it, and what to do if they have concerns
  • Simply getting enough sleep, and not working or driving when you’ve been awake too long. Some rough rules of thumb - such as informing workers that having less than six hours sleep in 24 is likely to impair performance - can help people understand whether they’re likely to be able to work the whole of their shift safely.
  • An open reporting culture towards fatigue - easy to say, but needs sustained efforts by all, with a collaborative approach involving managers, staff and representatives including trade unions. Only by collaborating will we get lasting fatigue risk reduction.

Good work has started in three fatigue working groups, one each for passenger and freight operators, and a third for infrastructure companies, but more needs to be done.  Society more widely is slowly becoming aware of the effects of fatigue on safety, health and wellbeing – it’s in everyone’s interests to re-double the rail industry’s own fatigue risk reduction efforts.

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