SafetyWatch_icon_1.pngSafety concern

The ATSB has investigated a number of incidents and accidents where fatigue was identified as having a causal effect.

Human fatigue is a physical and psychological condition primarily caused by prolonged wakefulness and/or insufficient or disturbed sleep. Everyone has experienced fatigue at some point, but in the transport industry, where there’s often high pressure to deliver, fatigue can have very real, very dangerous implications.

Fatigue can have a range of adverse influences on human performance, such as slowed reaction time, decreased work efficiency, reduced motivational drive, and increased variability in work performance. Fatigue can lead to lapses or errors associated with attention, problem-solving, memory, vigilance and decision-making.

Experiencing fatigue and its effects on performance is a widespread issue across the transport industry. ATSB investigations have found fatigue to be a safety factor in many rail, marine and aviation incidents and accidents. Investigators will check for the possibility of fatigue as a contributing safety factor in investigations where human performance issues are apparent.

Most people generally underestimate their level of fatigue. Studies have found that people experiencing fatigue are not able to evaluate accurately their own fatigue level or their ability to perform. Instead, they tend to overestimate their abilities.

What can you do?

Minimising fatigue is a responsibility for both employees and employers. Sleep is vital for recovery from fatigue, with both the quantity and quality of sleep being important. Most people need at least seven to eight hours of sleep each day to achieve maximum levels of alertness and performance.

Employers: Employers have a duty of care to provide safe work schedules that permit adequate time for an employee to sleep, rest and recover, as well as fulfil their social and domestic responsibilities. In doing so, organisations should provide adequate time for their staff to get the required restorative sleep opportunity, sufficient time for recovery including meals, hygiene and rest, as well as enough time to travel to and from suitable sleeping accommodation.

Employees: Employees should ensure they use any rest periods provided to obtain adequate sleep where possible. They also have a duty of care to use their time away from work to get enough sleep and recovery time so they can complete their work duties safely and responsibly.

The following questions can help you assess your risk of elevated fatigue at any time:

  • Have you missed gaining adequate sleep over the past few nights?
  • Have you had less than six hours sleep in the last 24 hours?
  • Have you had less than 14 hours sleep in the past 48 hours?
  • Has your sleep been disrupted?
  • Have you been awake and/or at work for an extended period?
  • Have you had a recent illness or injury?
  • Are you affected by medication, other drugs or alcohol?

If you have answered yes to one or more of these questions, you are at a higher risk of fatigue.

Culture: In the transport industry, when there’s so much emphasis on hitting schedules, and getting cargo and passengers to their destinations, there can be cultural pressure to ‘power on through’ and ‘just get it done.’ Even though there are laws which restrict the hours that people can be made to work, there are sometimes unofficial policies to stretch people’s hours or enter incorrect duty times. In circumstances like these, it can be difficult to speak up.

For situations like this, the ATSB maintains REPCON, a voluntary confidential reporting scheme for aviation, marine, and rail. It allows any person who has a safety concern to report it to the ATSB confidentially. Protection of the reporter’s identity is a primary element of the scheme.