What are the symptoms of fatigue in machine operators and drivers

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Written By Charlotte Miller

Many machine operators work shifts and long hours which contribute to sleepiness and fatigue. There are over 80 medical conditions that cause disrupted sleep or worse sleep quality, plus environmental and mental pressures that can mean sleep is elusive for some people.

Consider a forklift operator working from midnight to 8am who may also have a family with a young child, lives near a busy road which makes it hard to sleep during the day, and has underlying health conditions that cause him to wake up frequently as well as take a long time to get to sleep. Or perhaps a truck driver who gets up at 3am to pick up a load from a distribution centre, drives 600km on challenging roads, then has to sleep in a truck stop with other truck movements causing sleep that is light and disrupted. Because of time pressures and their circadian rhythm, these people might struggle to get more than 3-4 hours’ sleep in a day, whereas the average adult needs 7-8 hours.

Sleep disruption is common. The main cause of it is our lifestyle choices (simply choosing to not get enough sleep because we want to watch one more Netflix show, or spend time with the kids or walk the dog), but medical issues like sleep apnoea are becoming more and more common as we become more and more overweight on average. 

If you are working with other people who might be sleepy, they are at more risk of having an accident. Experts estimate that 10% of road traffic fatal accidents have sleepiness or fatigue as a major contributing factor.

As fatigue and sleepiness creates so much danger of injury and death, it’s recommended that all machine operators, drivers, supervisors and managers do a fatigue management course.

What’s the difference between fatigue and sleepiness?

Sleepiness is when you actually feel like you want to go to sleep. You are more likely to fall asleep on-task, and this can be extremely dangerous if you are operating heavy machinery or driving.

Fatigue is a mental and physical state. You are not necessarily sleepy when you are fatigued. However, you can be easily distracted and feel like you are lacking in energy.

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How do you recognise fatigue and sleepiness in others?

There are obvious symptoms and then some that are insidious and more difficult to spot. Sleepiness tends to be characterised by:

  • Yawning
  • Rubbing eyes
  • Inattention
  • Head nodding
  • Eyes drooping
  • Difficulty focusing on a task
  • Blurry vision
  • Short-term memory issues

Fatigue has some of the same characteristics of sleepiness, but also can include:

  • Slow movements and responses
  • Dizziness and headaches
  • Sore or aching muscles
  • Inability to make good judgements or quick decisions
  • Doesn’t finish tasks
  • Moody and irritable
  • Low appetite
  • Low motivation
  • Reduce immune system function

As an example, an excavator operator might start making mistakes, such as tipping a bucket of materials inaccurately. A salesperson might hit the rumble strips more frequently or find it difficult to stay within the road markings. A factory worker might find it difficult to remember instructions, or may leave tasks unfinished.

How does this affect work performance?

Consider how a job is structured and whether any of its tasks are particularly susceptible to being affected by fatigue. For example:

  • Working in a place which is warm with a constant white noise-type background noise
  • Doing the same thing over and over again for a long period of time
  • Shift starts before 6am or ends after 11pm
  • Long work hours
  • Job is stressful with many of the stressors out of the control of the person
  • High noise environment
  • Physically challenging work
  • Mentally challenging work

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Which types of workers are most likely to be affected by fatigue?

While everyone is at risk of fatigue if they make the wrong lifestyle choices or have underlying health issues, some specific occupations and types of work are more susceptible to fatigue:

  • Workers doing materials handling using forklifts, walkie stackers and pallet jacks, particularly if they are on night shift
  • Workers doing repetitive but physically demanding tasks on their own, such as excavator operators and  truck drivers
  • Workers in high-stress environments where long hours are common, such as doctors and nurses, and lawyers
  • Workers exposed regularly to different timezones and variable shifts, e.g. pilots
  • Workers who have a new baby at home, or are going through some kind of emotional trauma due to a breakup or a death in the family
  • Workers who commute a long way.

What can you do to help those suffering from fatigue or sleepiness?

If you have any control over the working conditions, or are able to make suggestions, these kinds of actions can help:

  • Talk about fatigue within the workplace to build awareness
  • Encourage people not to work through their breaks
  • Find out more about the personal circumstances of people you work with so that you can help – if they are having problems, sharing the problem might mean you are able to resolve it
  • Look at your rostering and see if you can make changes to ensure that people get adequate sleep
  • Develop a fatigue management plan and policies.