Human Fatigue: A Hidden Hazard


Human fatigue is a widespread and more troubling condition than most realize.  A recent report in Food Safety Magazine by Joe Balas, M.Sc., M.A. stated that in a 2017 National Safety Council (NSC) nationwide study on workplace fatigue, provide an insight to the various ways human fatigue may affect us and, more importantly, its prevalence both on and off the job.  Approximately 53% of respondents surveyed were less productive, 44% had trouble focusing and 27% had trouble making decisions. 

In the area of food safety, human fatigue is not generally acknowledged as a contributor to human error or workplace injuries or accidents. Yet, there exists extensive research that has investigated human fatigue’s negative impact on human performance and safety in the workplace in many different industrial settings.  

What is human fatigue?
Human fatigue is not a condition that happens immediately. It begins with a consistent loss of sleep over time. Simply defined, sleep loss is an inability to receive a proper amount and quality of sleep on a regular basis. There are many contributing sources to sleep loss. They include mental or emotional stress, medications, short- or long-term medical conditions, work induced factors (shift work, long hours, or weeks), and lifestyle choices. 

Safety Hazard? What Hazard?
We rarely think of sleep loss as a food safety hazard or a contributor to human error. Instead, we generally understand safety as a set of processes, rules, or practices of do’s and don’ts. So, sleep loss does not qualify or fit what we know about safety. However, when coming to work tired, sleep loss becomes a legitimate safety hazard.  

What Will You Do?
Sleep loss is a personal, hidden safety hazard waiting to happen. It does not care whether you are a worker, supervisor, or manager. The root cause lies in deciding how much or how little sleep you get and how rested you are or will be on a consistent basis. We must constantly remind ourselves that we are charged with our own personal safety and the safety of the public whom we serve.  If you believe that your work performance is affected by fatigue, it is your duty of care to report to your Supervisor to protect yourself, your work colleagues and the consumer. 

Joe Balas, M.Sc., M.A., the principal consultant at Human Factors Safety, has over 20 years of experience in the medical, training, aviation safety, system safety, and human factors engineering fields. He served 26 years in the military as a U.S. Navy medic and as an U.S. Air Force aerospace physiologist. He holds a B.A. in biology, an M.Sc. in occupational safety and health, and an M.A. in human communication.