Fatigue at Work | The WorkSAFE Podcast

Fatigue leads to 1.2 million lost work days and costs businesses billions of dollars every year. Pamala Bobbitt of Cority is back on the podcast to discuss how a lack of sleep impacts workers’ professional lives, and how technology can both worsen the problem and provide some solutions. The following is a transcript of the conversation, which you can also hear using the player.

Benskin:

Our guest on the show today is Pam Bobbit with Cority. Thanks for joining us today, Pam.

Bobbitt:

Thank you for having me!

Benskin:

Today, our topic is fatigue at work. To get started, before we jump into that, give us a little introduction of yourself and tell us what you do at Cority.

Bobbitt:

I guess you could say that I’m a chemist who didn’t want to work in a lab; I like to be out and about talking to people. I started in hazardous waste and expanded into EHS. I was an EHS manager and went into the software world – oh my gosh – a decade ago. Now, at Cority, I’m able to help our customers and partners come out from behind that screen of EHS being the police of the organization, and always the ones who are saying no. We help them contribute to the overall corporation and show how.

Benskin:

That’s a great segue into our topic today, which is fatigue at work. Talk to us a little bit about your experience; how it affects employees and the businesses they work for.

The rise of fatigue at work

Bobbitt:

It’s kind of interesting because initially, a lot of people didn’t think about fatigue. We talk about fatigue in two different ways. When we say “fatigue,” there are some people who think of fatigue as in lack of sleep – being tired, that type of fatigue. You also think about muscle fatigue; repetitive motion. We’re going to focus more on that lack of sleep today, because historically, I don’t think people have really looked at the impact that has on businesses. Sometimes when we talk about lack of sleep, we differentiate between work life and personal life. You know, my inability to sleep is a personal thing, and it has nothing to do with work, because I sleep during my personal time. But it absolutely does impact work.

Some people think about how sleep habits affect drivers, or workers in certain industries. They may think it’s only truck drivers, airplane pilots, etc. and that it only affects certain industries, but it absolutely affects every industry. Now, people are really emphasizing that. Maybe it’s because of new technology – people are trying to be healthier overall, and they’re tracking it more.

Kirberg Roofing employee safely climbs ladder

There are some statistics that we can talk about a little later on related to risk and how to proactively address it. When you look at risk assessments, bringing in that third element of fatigue at work. It’s quite interesting. We’ve started seeing more and more studies saying that fatigue does impact your professional life, even though you sleep on your personal time.

Benskin:

What do you think has been the driver for this awareness around fatigue? Obviously, for years and even decades, people have stayed up late and worked late, and then gone into the workplace with that fatigue that we’re discussing. Where do you think that awareness has really come from with businesses?

Bobbitt:

Yeah, and I won’t even mention shift work! That was the worst! Tying into fatigue: shift work is terrible in itself, but I remember my uncle changing shifts all the time. We see this increase in awareness because there are initiatives now around operational excellence and mitigating your risk. That really focuses on these studies that are tying fatigue to that cost of business. People are like, “whoa, are you kidding me?” Of course, everyone’s trying to get better and better performance because of visibility to their companies. So, you want to be better performing; how do you do that?

The costs of fatigue

There are more studies around the impact of fatigue at work. In 2016, Rand put out a study connecting lack of sleep to a 13 percent increase in risk of death at work, and a loss of 1.2 million work days per year. If you take Forbes’ daily rate of $3,600 every time the average worker is out for absenteeism, that translates to – are you ready for this? – $4.23 billion.

Benskin:

Wow.

Bobbitt:

That’s what lack of sleep costs organizations every year! That’s a huge number.

Benskin:

It is a huge number. It’s eye opening because in work comp, like you, we think about the risk side in terms of actual injuries. But this is a lot bigger discussion about productivity and absenteeism – that’s huge. That’s alarming.

Bobbitt:

It is. And there was another poll of industry experts that estimated fatigue costs workplaces $77 billion overall. That includes that loss of production. We just talked about the loss of the employee asset, but when you look at the impact to production, the number goes from $4 billion up to $77 billion.

Benskin:

Wow. As the operator of a business, that’s an important aspect. You have to look out for the safety of your employees and prevent absenteeism. Just from a production standpoint, it’s no wonder there’s such an emphasis being placed on fatigue at work. That’s astounding.

Bobbitt:

It is. There are all kinds of studies on the time of day, shift work and that kind of stuff. If you go back and look at some of the major incidents that we can all remember, there are three of them: the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Fatigue played a role in all of those tragedies. I don’t think I knew, until I read that study, that fatigue played a role in those. I don’t think that was something that was really documented or talked about.

Employee at standing work station

Fatigue can lead to negative health effects

Benskin:

It’s interesting that you talk about shift work. One thing that popped into my head about shift work is that during a “normal” business day, a person’s working 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.; during the day. It seems culturally acceptable that you work during the day and sleep at night. Workers on a graveyard shift are working at night, and then they’re supposed to be home in their sleep cycle during the day. Have you seen any research showing that those who work the night shift are more at-risk for fatigue because they try and push themselves to run errands or do family obligations during the day while they should be in their sleep cycle?

Bobbitt:

There are a lot of studies on it. The simple answer is yes, the risk of accident is 30 percent higher for those employees on the night shift. We’ve talked about work-life balance, so here’s the other element: People who work the night shift sleep, on average, two hours less than everybody else.

Then we go into that sleep deprivation element as well. The people who are doing that shift work are two times more likely to suffer from sleep apnea. There are all these other implications that pile on top. Not only are they at higher risk for incidents – that 30 percent – they also have more risk of overall health issues because they’re sleep deprived.

How much sleep do we need?

Shifting time zones can even do that. When we talked a couple of weeks ago, I was just getting off of a travel stint. I was putting my thoughts together and pulling research, and I was suddenly feeling really tired. I thought, I definitely need to stop traveling so much. Nighttime workers are sleeping on average two hours less, and there’s this thing called social jetlag. You bank up so many hours of lack of sleep; it’s like credit card debt. It’s your sleep debt. And those people who have a couple days’ worth of sleep debt are 11 percent more likely to have heart disease. There’s also an increase in depression; mental health comes with it, too. You have to think about that.

Talking about shift work – I don’t see much of that anymore, and hopefully that’s sort of stopped in this day and age. It takes one day to adjust for every hour of time change. So, if someone is going from day shift to night shift, that’s an eight- or 12-hour time difference depending on their shift length. That means twelve days in order for you to adjust.

Think about auditors in our industry related to environmental health and safety. Auditors or quality assurance as well. They’re traveling abroad or even regionally. I know a lot of heavy industrial companies send their technicians out to service their customers, and they can be overseas. Going across the pond either way, whether you’re going from Europe to North America or back, or even to Australia and Asia Pacific. Those time zones! If you’re sending your employees around to do onsite visits with customers, audits or meetings within your organization, it’s one day of adjustment per hour time change. Most companies go for a week. If you go from North America to Europe that’s a five- to nine-hour time difference, and you don’t even have time to adjust before you’re back.

Benskin:

Literally, that whole week that you’re there to be productive and do the work you’re there to do, it really just needs to be off-time to adjust to the time difference. That’s interesting.

Bobbitt:

Again, that’s what’s amazing. What killed me, honestly – and it could – that 11 percent increase. I was like, “Wow, 11 percent increase in heart disease.” I don’t think that’s one that people who travel a lot for business think about.

Benskin:

Yeah, it’s eye-opening. The statistic that hit me even more was when you said that night shift workers get two hours less sleep per night. Think about society as a whole, even those of us who work normal day jobs. I think the average sleep for the U.S. worker is trending downward anyway. It’s less than recommended, for sure. Then, you take two hours less than that already decreased number. That’s huge, not only in the workplace but also in the overall health of that employee.

Bobbitt:

Depending on which study you looked at previously, we always heard that on average, people need seven to eight hours of sleep. I’ll tell you something funny: this morning, I read an article that people need more sleep than that seven to eight hours because we’re interacting with technology so much, and our brains need time to relax from that. So, it’s interesting that we’re getting less sleep, even based off of the old school standard. Now there are studies saying we need even more sleep than that original seven- to eight-hour recommendation because of our interaction with technology, which we know is increasing on a radical scale.

Technology and fatigue

Benskin:

I read a study several months ago talking about the blue light given off by a lot of the screens on our devices, and how it impacts our sleep quality.

Employee digging using machinery

You’re right, people think about fatigue at work and they think about, like you said, the repetitive motion and just the physicality of fatigue. They don’t really think about the mental side of it. I know I spend a lot of time on technology, of course, looking at a computer screen and cell phone at work, and you’re mentally drained after even a day of work. That definitely impacts overall sleep quality, and ultimately that bank of fatigue that we build up over time.

Bobbitt:

Yeah, and of course it interacts with our sleep cycles, as well. You have to have so much time in order for your body to actually get into that REM cycle where we’re actually repairing during that deeper sleep. If you’re not sleeping long enough, you’re never getting into that element. A lot of people – I used to be one of them, and I’m sure many listeners are going to say, “yeah that’s me” – sleep with their phones on their nightstand, right next to their bed.

Benskin:

I’m guilty of that.

Bobbitt:

Me too! It’s similar to, when you have a baby, what I call the “mom ears,” so that you’re always kind of unconsciously (or consciously) keeping an ear out when you have a child. It’s the same thing with our phones now, because you’re tuned in to hear that ping of an email coming in. For workaholics like me, that’s not always good. I actually had to break myself and, because my sleep habits were getting so horrid, I would “tuck my phone in” in another room and close the door. Because when I would hear it, I would wake up, no matter what time or how long I’d been asleep, just like a baby crying on the baby monitor. I’d wake up and I’d check my email. The only way that I could break myself of that was to put it in the other room so that I could actually get rest.

Benskin:

People need to think about that. You mentioned the blue light. I’ve noticed that a lot of devices, especially phones, have come up with nighttime mode to take away that element. Talking about sleeping with your phone on the nightstand: Some phones have a sleep function where you can set a time at night to basically mute everything other than emergency calls. That’s what I did on my phone. It turns off at a set time, and even if I get 20 emails, it’s not going to ding. It’s not going to take me out of that peaceful sleep. In the morning, about the time that I get up, it starts allowing those notifications to come through.

I think everybody needs to find that balance, whether it’s hiding your phone in another room or using that sleep setting. That’s very important. Even during the day, when we put our phones on vibrate, we can sit in the middle of a meeting and know we’re getting emails as soon as they come through. Especially when you’re trying to rest and recuperate from a hard day at work by sleeping, it’s harmful to still be tuned in to those notifications. You never get into that true deep sleep or the restorative sleep cycle.

Bobbitt:

I can never do the sleep setting thing, because when it comes back on and you hear all those emails go “ping ping ping,” it stresses me out! My stress level goes up. That’s why the sleep mode didn’t even work for me.

Benskin:

Stress is a whole other conversation we could talk about.

Bobbitt:

That’s another podcast!

Benskin:

That’s a good segue. We’re talking about technology, and we’ve been talking about the detriments of technology related to fatigue. On the positive side, there is some new technology, I understand, that can actually help measure fatigue at work?

Doing Steel employee welds with safety equipment

How technology can help

Bobbitt:

Yes, and it started on the personal side. Everybody is health conscious now. It was a gravitational acceleration from counting your steps – there was the 10,000 steps per day to be healthier. Then you started getting the pedometers and the Fitbits and all those devices. There are tons of them that measure your activity level. Then they progressed because of all the studies saying, “you can eat healthy, and walk your 10,000 steps a day, and do your 5-6 hours of cardio (depending on gender and age range that you’re supposed to have), and you could still not be at a healthy weight.” They were asking why. Well, it’s sleep deprivation. Sleep has a huge impact if you’re trying to get healthier and lose body fat. A lot of these devices that were made to measure activity and calorie intake and things like that started measuring sleep habits to see how that impacted your overall health.

Of course, with technology like the beacons and smart PPE, you’re able to actually do real-time testing. We mentioned that historically, we only thought about fatigue’s impact on drivers because the number of accidents increased like 45 percent with driver fatigue. You have telemetry devices that help measure the fatigue of truck drivers.

Now, there’s smart PPE, and it’s called “smart” because it has the technology to measure the employee. You can have a hard hat that connects to an EEG to see fatigue level. A vest, during the summertime, can check for heat stroke. It can light up when the body temperature sends alerts. Devices like Fitbits and Readibands can measure your fatigue and sleep cycles.

Artificial intelligence can not only do algorithms to calculate your fatigue score but also predict fatigue impairment. For example, at the end of the day, everybody’s exhausted. Well, it can help predict what your level of fatigue is going to be at the end of your shift. There’s lots of new technology out there that’s really great, but it’s just starting to be used. It’s really interesting.

Benskin:

Yeah, it is. We’re going to come full circle here. We’ve talked about the impact of fatigue on not only the worker’s health but also the business they work for. We’ve talked about technology. The question is: What type of programs can a business put into place in order to mitigate the impact of fatigue on business and their employees?

Personalized programs work

Bobbitt:

There are a lot. What’s interesting is that the programs where I’ve seen some positive impact are the ones that bring the family element into the program. Workers tend to adopt it and understand.

For instance, a long time ago when I was the young, naive EHS manager at an automotive manufacturing plant that was in the middle of Tobacco Alley, I put together a program for employees to stop smoking. I was a go-getter.

Benskin:

I’m sure you were a popular person at that time.

Bobbitt:

Well, all the health benefits, right? If I could go back, I’d tell my younger self that what I didn’t do was, I didn’t bring it back and make it personal to them. Explain why it would’ve benefited them. I didn’t say, “You know what, if you stop smoking now, then you’re going to have a 25 percent higher chance of living past the age of 60. You’re going to get to play with your grandchildren.” This is a good story for EHS in general. When you’re talking to different business units, bring it back to make them understand what the impact is to them.

A lot of companies – and we’re doing it at Cority – are working with Fatigue Science with Readibands. We have a couple of customers who are doing this too. Across all of our different departments, we’re measuring our sleep habits. We’re getting to see our sleep scores and our alertness scores, which is really great. Then, we’re tying into some of those personal elements. People learn things that surprise them. They may see that they have sleep apnea and they didn’t know it. What do they do? That’s when we bring in those programs to help them understand and address the problem. Who to talk to, how to go about getting assistance.

Employees lifting stone with machinery

If you go back to young, naive Pam as EHS manager, and look at my risk assessments and job hazard analyses, they were pretty straightforward. You evaluate: here’s my test, here are my controls and here’s the overall risk. Now, we can put that third dimension of fatigue on top of it. A supervisor can see it. It doesn’t take the place of that personal interaction, but sometimes you don’t have time to have that personal interaction to understand that maybe someone’s got a newborn and they shouldn’t be doing that high-risk activity. A supervisor can see if there’s a task that’s moderate- or high-risk and get a notification that the person’s fatigue score is bad. They can add that layer onto the risk assessment and say, “Okay, what task are they doing right now? If I put this fatigue score on top of that does it change it from low-risk to high-risk?”

Now, we’re being proactive to evaluate whether it has an impact. Depending on the task, it might not. But if it did change it from low- to high-risk then you could proactively say, “Hey, you know what? Let’s get you put on this activity today or right now.” You’re showing that employee that the company cares about them.

I did a study last year examining the number one priority that EHS managers worked on in 2017, and for the group of 1,500+ people, it was avoiding incidents. In this example, you’re avoiding an incident! You’re using this technology to avoid injuries because you’re mitigating that risk in real time based off of new factors. When you do that original risk assessment, that’s your perceived risk. Now, you can assess it in the moment to add a third dimension to it. The risk is completely different, and you can make a change.

Benskin:

It’s really cool to see that use of technology and real-time data to align the person’s actual fatigue level with the risk inherently in the task they’re assigned to do. That’s incredible to be able to gather that kind of data and use it in such an impactful way right there on the job.

Bobbitt:

Yeah, it is. There are lots of companies that are starting to look at this. I was at a conference on a panel with a large food and beverage company, and we were sharing our information with these Readibands. There’s more that we can do with that to do what naive Pam didn’t do – to bring it back around to the worker so they say “Wow, I didn’t realize.” It’s not only helping avoid the injury; it’s making them feel important. Our employees are one of our biggest assets, and people forget about that sometimes. When people feel like they work in an environment where they’re cared about, where that safety culture score is high, their productivity levels are increased by 10-12 percent. That contributes back to the overall performance of the company. And it shows that it’s not just caring about them at work; it’s caring about them to make sure that they’re getting home and they’re there for their family. It’s caring about their overall health, not just at work, but at home too.

Benskin:

It seems like in every podcast, no matter who we’re talking with, we always tend to bring up this safety culture piece. It comes down to valuing your employees. You touched on it right there. It’s valuing your employee, not just as an asset to your bottom line or profitability but valuing them knowing they have a family at home, and responsibilities outside of the workplace. It’s refreshing to me to hear that from so many people in the industry. It goes back to the culture shift that we talked about in our work-life balance episode. Some of those European values and the way they do business are starting to bleed into the way we conduct business here in the U.S. It’s definitely a positive impact.

To wrap this up, Pam, thank you so much for joining us today. We covered a lot of great info.

Bobbitt:

Thank you again.


Thanks to Pam for sharing her expertise on the podcast. Check out our other WorkSAFE Podcast episodes, and subscribe for more workplace safety stories and insight.

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