The Washington State Labor Council and the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) recently held a seminar concerning Workers’ Compensation matters. I attended the seminar as it covers several topics that relate to my area of practice. The final segment included an important reminder about work safety: Fatigue is dangerous!


Fatigue can lead to work injury or workplace accident

According to the US Department of Labor, long, extended, and irregular work hours cause work fatigue. In fact, fatigue is a very serious workplace safety concern, especially during COVID-19. These days, workers are juggling so much and working under irregular circumstances. Furthermore, recent statistics show that fatigued working conditions and tired labor workers are currently at an all-time high.


Simply put, working longer irregular hours causes mental and physical stress. Consequently, these undesirable and stressful work conditions increase the risk for illness and workplace injury. More explicitly, loss of sleep and fatigue dramatically impact work safety in several ways:

1) Reaction time – If you sleep 6 hours or less, your reaction time can change from a quarter of a second to 4 seconds. Too often, this can mean the difference between making a lifesaving split-second decision and not.

2) Judgement and decision-making – workers that sleep 90 minutes less than usual are less alert. Specifically, this sleeping habit change can reduce alertness by 30%. Therefore, it becomes more difficult for workers to make good decisions. For example, in a high-risk work environment, it impacts the worker’s ability to recognize danger quickly and avoid work hazards.

3) Impairment – Fatigue from lack of sleep can cause more impairment than from drinking. Hence, fatigue-impaired workers cannot think clearly or critically.


Heavy equipment work injury as a result of fatigue

Workers operating dangerous or heavy equipment while experiencing fatigue is a recipe for disaster. It’s particularly concerning for people working as truck drivers under their commercial driver license (CDL). Realistically speaking, fatigue is a frequent factor in serious motor vehicle accidents. Just imagine an 18-wheel commercial truck and its driver, no matter how experienced, driving under exhaustion. Similarly, fatigue is a known contributor to errors in patient care and it increases workplace injury occurrences in the healthcare industry.


Interestingly, according to the US Department of Health, fatigue played a significant role in the following major accidents:

  • The 2005 BP oil refinery explosion
  • 2009 Colgan air crash
  • Space shuttle Challenger explosion, and
  • Nuclear reactor accidents across the country


Worker health is top concern and priority

On top of increasing workplace accidents, occupational illnesses, and injuries, fatigue reduces the overall health of workers. Fatigue causes heart disease, stomach and digestive problems, and musculoskeletal disorders. Not to mention reproductive issues and depression. It can also contribute to some cancers (including breast and prostate cancer), sleep disorders, obesity, and worsening of chronic illnesses such as diabetes and epilepsy.


To summarize, fatigue is both dangerous and expensive.  We all need to do our part to reduce fatigue in the workplace. Workers must get proper rest. When they do, they are more efficient, safer to themselves and their surroundings, and they are healthier. We are all very busy right now. On top, we are under a lot more stress than usual. However, we must do our best to not let these conditions impact the importance of rest and good sleep.