A shared responsibility between the employer and employee

By Lisa Kopochinski

Long hours and hard, physical work are the norm for many working in Canada’s construction industry. However, if not properly managed, these conditions can lead to worker fatigue, resulting in unsafe working conditions. This is why companies need to take stronger measures to prevent fatigue.

What is fatigue management?

“Basically, [fatigue management] recognizes that fatigue compromises a person’s ability to function both physically and mentally, and even affects our emotional state,” said Mike Harnett, owner and president of Solaris Fatigue Management, a British Columbia-based firm that supplies innovative and effective fatigue risk management strategies.

“The consequences of that are that we cannot continue to function at a level that we need to function at to do the job safely,” she said. “This means more injuries, more incidents, more errors and even more mental health issues.”

While many jobs have hazards attached to them, it is important for companies to take a closer look at how much riskier construction jobs are if the worker is tired.

“The earlier they can become involved, the better,” said Harnett . “At the beginning of the project life cycle, we need to start looking at wherever there is a human interaction, and we need to examine that interaction for hazards. So, if they are looking at where workers are [working], what are the performance requirements that have to be done?”

Fatigue is normal

What happens if a tired person is placed in line with the hazards of their job? How much riskier do those projects become?

“We need to start looking at our jobs through a fatigue lens,” said Harnett . “Fatigue is part of the normal human condition and it’s not something we are going to eliminate from the worksite. We’re not going to stop people from showing up tired for a variety of reasons, but we can manage it. We have to look at how we design work and manage the risks in order to get them down as low as possible.”

“Fatigue is part of the normal human condition and it’s not something we are going to eliminate from the worksite.”

– Mike Harnett, Solaris Fatigue Management

Shared responsibility

Many may think that fatigue management on a worksite is solely the responsibility of the construction company. The reality is that it is a shared responsibility between the employer and employee.

“On the worker’s side, it’s about showing up fit for work,” said Harnett. “This means employees need to get the sleep they require to fully restore themselves. They have to manage any medical conditions and anything lifestyle-related that could affect their ability to do their jobs.”

On the organizational side, the company’s responsibility is to ensure that the work fits the worker, that workloads don’t create excessive fatigue, that work schedules are well-designed and that the work designs look for fatigue-related factors; even the work culture plays a role as all of these contribute to fatigue-related issues.

“Fatigue is also a physical risk factor as fatigue impairment can lead to incidents, injuries and – in extreme cases – fatalities.”

– Ben Snyman, SafetyVantage

“For example, if a project is running behind and there is a heavy workload schedule, or the company is short-staffed and they need overtime, this can impact the available sleep time for the employees,” said Harnett. “If an employee puts in a 14- to 16-hour day, how much time will they have to get the sleep they require? Every adult requires seven to nine hours of recuperative sleep daily to fully restore their brain and body. But if they put in 16 hours, that only leaves them eight hours to commute, eat, shower and do all their other responsibilities. What are they going to be cutting back on? It will be their sleep because the schedule is dictating this.”

Ben Snyman is CEO and founder of SafetyVantage, a company based in Calgary, that promotes health and safety in the workplace through online occupational health and safety (OHS) training. With more than four decades of combined experience, SafetyVantage has delivered online training to more than 5,000 organizations and over 100,000 individuals across Canada.

He says fatigue management in “layman’s terms” – within the context of OHS – is the management and control of risks that can result in fatigue-related workplace incidents.

“It spans over psychosocial and physical health and safety in the workplace. Fatigue can result in psychosocial risks – including anxiety and depression – which lead to both absenteeism (short-term disability) and presenteeism (present, but not productive at work). It can also lead to workplace violence (if someone is tired and, as a result, is short with others or shows physical aggression). Fatigue is also a physical risk factor as fatigue impairment can lead to incidents, injuries and – in extreme cases – fatalities. For example, a tired worker is less likely to operate heavy machinery with full focus and attention, which can very quickly lead to an incident,” said Snyman.

While he says everyone is legally responsible, there may be factors which management or supervisors are not aware of.

“Ultimately the employer is accountable to ensure all fatigue-related risks are identified and appropriately controlled,” he said. “However, every worker also has the responsibility to prevent workplace incidents by reporting any risks or incidents that may result due to fatigue to a supervisor or manager.”

The implications of hiding fatigue

What about employees who don’t want to rock the boat and try to hide their fatigue? How should this be addressed?

“Well, it’s the whole concept of fit to work,” said Harnett. “They’re supposed to show up in a fit state. If they aren’t, then the organization has to take responsibility. That means companies need to know how to recognize those employees who are tired.”

She says that if a company does not have a strategy in place, they are making supervisors “fly by the seat of their pants.”

“One supervisor may tell a struggling employee to go have a nap in their truck for 30 minutes. Another supervisor may look at that same employee and […] tell them to leave the site.”

She adds that without having any policies in place or strategies for supervisors to identify whether a person is fatigued or not, it can be very difficult to manage the situation.

“There are two levels of intervention. For example, if someone shows up for work and is a great employee, but seems to be struggling that day, the supervisor can ask how they are doing. If the worker responds that the baby kept them up last night, this is understandable. We call that acute fatigue. You might handle this differently compared to the employee who shows up every day consistently tired. This could be chronic fatigue. In this situation, there may be a different procedure to follow, such as a referral to a medical practitioner to rule out anything else that could be contributing to their fatigue,” said Harnett.

Snyman adds that every organization/employer in Canada must provide and take reasonable steps to ensure a healthy and safe workplace. This will include appropriate controls to prevent damage and incidents due to employee fatigue.

“There are three basic rights that every employee has. First is the right to know about workplace hazards and to have access to basic health and safety information. Second is the right to participate in health and safety discussions and health and safety committees. That is, what can be done to prevent and control the risk of workplace fatigue? And, thirdly, the right to refuse dangerous work and know that you’re protected from reprisal. Workplace fatigue can be viewed similar to an employee being impaired.”

While many jobs have hazards attached to them, it is important for companies to take a closer look at how much riskier construction jobs are if the worker is tired.

Large companies versus small companies

“There are a lot of things small employers have on their plate from an occupational health and safety perspective. And many just don’t have the resources to address it. If you are the prime contractor and are setting up a fatigue management program, you want to ensure that all your subs are falling underneath those policies and procedures as well and getting the support that they need,” said Harnett.

She adds that larger companies are beginning to recognize fatigue management and how it is handled.

“With the construction industry, we look historically at the type of injuries, incidents and errors, and then start comparing them against how much time workers had been putting in prior to this event happening. But it’s not just at work that risk goes up. For example, if a worker is up for 17 hours and then drives home, this is equivalent to having a blood-alcohol level of 0.05. And, if they are working for 20 hours and drive home, this is equivalent to 0.08,” said Harnett, adding that only British Columbia and Saskatchewan have addressed fatigue in their regulations.

“In B.C., as a worker, you are required to tell your employer if your ability to perform any of your assignments is impaired for any reason. That includes being impaired by fatigue. As an employer, you are not allowed to assign any impaired worker to activities where fatigue or any other impairment creates undue risk. Employers are responsible for managing the health and safety risks in the workplace and that includes fatigue. In other provinces, ‘fatigue’ has not been brought up, but they will use ‘impairment,’ but fatigue is, in fact, an impairment,” she said. 

This article was originally published in Issue 2 2022 of Piling Canada magazine. It is reprinted with permission.

Mike Harnett is the owner of Solaris Fatigue Management. Ben Snyman is the CEO and founder of SafetyVantage.