Facing up to fatigue

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As an industry that works such unsociable hours in high pressure environments, railway staff are familiar with fatigue in the workplace. In a safety critical environment, tiredness can most certainly kill.

Since the creation of the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) in 2005, there have been a number of accidents where fatigue has been highlighted as a major contributing factor. Falling asleep on the job, although very serious, isn’t the only risk fatigue poses. Someone who has been up for more than 24 hours is likely to have the same level of impairment as someone who is over the drink drive limit. Slower reaction times and blunted decision making can be just as dangerous.

The ORR gives some examples of the hazards on its website: Fatigue: ‘A driver moves away forgetting that permission has not been given; a track worker carrying out maintenance or renewal work fails to complete necessary checks or procedures before finishing a job; a signaller sets an incorrect route or gives an incorrect message; a track worker falls asleep on the motorway while driving back home after working all night to complete the job.’

Overall measures for managing fatigue are becoming more sophisticated and the problems it poses are beginning to be taken seriously, but how well do we really understand the risk of fatigue to the modern rail industry?

Understanding the challenge

According to Stephanie Brizs, Network Rail’s fatigue specialist, ‘There are several different types of fatigue so it’s quite a difficult concept to fully understand.’

Network Rail is currently implementing a fatigue risk management programme. The aim of the scheme is to standardise the way fatigue is identified and managed across the company. Part of this will involve building on the current fatigue training.

‘The first thing we’ve done is seek to understand the challenge better,’ says Stephanie, who has previously worked in the oil and aviation industries. ‘Traditionally, as a business, we’ve significantly underestimated the impact of fatigue as a factor in safety incidents. Investigations now ask more probing questions about fatigue, whereas before they didn’t really explore it in any depth.’

RAIB inspector Mark Young and Tabitha Steel have put together a report on the current state of fatigue management in the UK rail industry, which, like many other industries, still largely relies on working hour limits to ensure weary employees aren’t declaring themselves fit to work. The paper takes the view that this approach is too simplistic. Generally, there is agreement that it actually requires a combination of better rostering, technology and training.

Prevention

Those designing rosters are now attempting to predict fatigue and plan accordingly, following simple rules like leaving a night’s sleep between late and early shifts. For example, Network Rail is working with the RSSB to specifically look at how to reduce the impact of fatigue for employees undertaking their first rostered night shift.

But rostering has its limitations; it can’t actually spot when people turn up fatigued. It also doesn’t take account of the quality of rest someone is getting when not at work.

Says Stephanie, ’What we have to realise is fatigue isn’t just about the hours they’re working or the rest periods they’re having. It could be things outside of work that are causing fatigue.

‘It could be family problems, a young baby keeping them up or family commitments outside of work. So when they should really be resting, they’re actually maybe taking children to or from school or other commitments that they’re doing outside work, so I think we have to be much more open to discuss it and look at the other issues around fatigue.’

Part of the solution could be to help employees monitor their own health and sleep patterns. This is where technology can help. Health monitors and actigraphs – wristwatch devices that track the users activity and sleep levels – are useful at predicting fatigue patterns. Stephanie said there were discussions within the industry to look at the possibility of developing a health monitoring app that would be capable of incorporating individual shift patterns.

But preventative measures aren’t perfect and, unfortunately, the only absolute solution for fatigue is sleep – not a practical fix when most jobs on the railway offer few napping opportunities.

Says Stephanie, ‘Prevention is always better than cure. But what we do accept is that when we talk about things like culture change we know it’s not going to be something that changes overnight, so we’ve got to look at it from both perspectives.

A variety of inventive stopgap solutions are being developed. Blue light treatment is one method that could have a wider application in the future – a short session has been shown to be as effective as drinking a cup of strong coffee. Real-time monitoring technology, which although very new to the railway, is establishing itself in the automotive industry. Eye tracking software, which sounds an alarm when it catches the driver losing focus, is already being installed in production cars.

‘We need to develop both hand in hand with the idea being that we’ll have less use of those things as we start to change the culture within the business…’

Culture change

One thing that was highlighted both in the research and by Stephanie is that the onus is not entirely on the employer.

Even with better education, staff may still turn up for work fatigued. They may feel pressed to get a project completed or pressure from colleagues; they may even fear that their job is at risk if they didn’t work through fatigue.

‘The culture is going to be the hardest bit to tackle, I believe,’ says Stephanie. ‘We talk about the phrase ‘lead by example’ where managers are perhaps putting themselves in the position where they could become fatigued – in terms of the hours they’re working to do their job – which then puts pressure, almost unwritten pressure, on their staff members that they feel that they must continue to work even if they’re tired, even if it means doing longer hours.’

Stephanie said that treating fatigue like an illness would ensure it was taken seriously, but noted that it could be open to abuse. ’I think that’s where we have to go. With fatigue it can be a fine line because you’re always going to have those genuinely affected, and those who may use it as an excuse.’

She added, ’Increased reporting of it is one of the key things because the more we can recognise or identify that it’s happening the better picture we get which means we’re better able to deal with the root causes of why it’s happening. There’s only a limited impact we can have external to the workplace but that doesn’t mean we can’t do certain things to support our staff.’