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Fatigue

Fatigue is more than feeling tired and drowsy. At work, fatigue is a state of mental and/or physical exhaustion that reduces your ability to work safely and effectively.

What’s fatigue?

It’s more than feeling tired and drowsy – fatigue is a state of mental and/or physical exhaustion that reduces the ability to work safely and effectively. It can happen when someone is overworked, not sleeping right or has had a disruption to their internal body clock.

Fatigue can be caused by factors that may be work related, non-work related or a combination of both and can build up over time.

Fatigue impacts alertness, which may lead to mistakes and an increase in incidents and injuries, particularly when:

  • operating fixed or mobile plant, including driving vehicles
  • doing critical tasks that require a lot of concentration
  • doing night or shift work when a person would be normally sleeping.

What are the risks?

The effects of fatigue can be short or long term. In the short term, a person may show signs or report symptoms like:

  • constant yawning or falling asleep at work
  • short-term memory problems and a hard time concentrating
  • finding it hard to join in conversations
  • bad decision-making and judgment
  • reduced hand-eye coordination or slow reflexes
  • changes in behaviour, for example, repeatedly arriving late for work
  • increase in unplanned absence.

A fatigued worker may also experience symptoms not obvious to others including:

  • feeling drowsy
  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • blurred vision
  • a need for extended sleep during days off work.

The longer-term health effects of fatigue can include:

  • heart disease
  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • intestinal disorders
  • lower fertility
  • anxiety
  • depression.

How do I manage the risks?

Fatigue management is a shared responsibility between management and workers, as it involves factors both inside and outside of work.

Preventing and managing fatigue-related risk in the workplace (PDF, 1.45 MB) provides guidance on how to identify, manage and control fatigue, to make sure health and safety risks are avoided at work.

For employers or persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs), it’s your duty to use a risk management approach to manage fatigue, as outlined in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.

Following a four-step risk management process will help your business meet its responsibilities under work health and safety (WHS) laws.

You should read the information on this page together with Safe Work Australia's Guide for managing the risk of fatigue at work and Fatigue management - a worker’s guide. These resources provide detailed steps on how to manage fatigue to make sure it doesn’t contribute to health and safety risks in your place of work.

Four steps to managing risk

A fatigued worker can be a serious hazard at your place of work. To manage the risk, the first step you need to take is to identify factors that cause fatigue.

Fatigue is often caused by a number of factors working together.

The major factors that can contribute to and increase the risk of fatigue include:

  • work schedules – for example, shift work, night work, hours of work and breaks
  • job demands – for example, the amount of work being done
  • sleep – for example, length of sleep time, quality of sleep and time in between sleeping
  • environmental conditions – for example, working in cold or hot conditions
  • non-related work factors.

To identify if any of these factors are contributing to fatigue in your workers, you can:

  • talk to workers, including managers, supervisors and health and safety representatives about workloads and schedules
  • look into work practices and systems of work, for example the amount of choice workers have over their work hours
  • look into worker records, for example, sign-out sheets
  • look for advice and information on fatigue from relevant experts and studies
  • check over incident data including incidents travelling to and from work
  • look into human resource data, for example unplanned absenteeism.

Section 2 of the Guide for managing the risk of fatigue at work will give you more information around the ways of identifying fatigue.

A risk assessment involves thinking about what could happen if someone was fatigued at your place of work and the likelihood of it happening.

A risk assessment can help you figure out:

  • where, which and how many workers (including contractors and subcontractors) are likely to be at risk of becoming fatigued
  • how often fatigue is likely to happen
  • the degree of harm that may result from fatigue
  • whether any effective control measures are in place and if they’re effective
  • what actions you can take to control the risk of fatigue
  • how quickly you should act.

When assessing the risks, it’s important to remember that fatigue in workers can happen due to a number of factors working together. For example, it might not just be the demands of a worker’s job causing fatigue, it could also be their hours of work and environmental conditions.

Risks of injury from fatigue may increase if workers work long hours in a physically or mentally demanding job. The risk of fatigue may increase when new workers begin their job and are adjusting to work demands.

Doing a risk assessment is similar to the ways of identifying factors contributing to fatigue in Step 1. These steps can be carried out at the same time. It’s not necessary to do a risk assessment in all situations.

The best way to control the health and safety risks coming from fatigue, is to eliminate the factors causing fatigue at the source. If eliminating these aren’t reasonably practicable, you must minimise them. What’s reasonably practicable to do to manage the risks of fatigue will vary depending on your type of industry, the structure of your organisation as well as the person carrying out the work.

For example, control measures used by a small business may be different from those used by a large corporation with 300 shift workers, or those used by an emergency service organisation working under emergency response conditions.

Using a combination of control measures across your systems of work, as well as control measures specific to the work, can help to minimise more than one contributing factor to fatigue. For example, increasing the amount of time between shifts and adjusting shift start times may improve the opportunity for sleep.

Control measures

Section 2.4 of the Guide for managing the risk of fatigue at work lists control measures that you can use to minimise the risk of fatigue in your place of work. These look into different aspects of work practices and systems of work.

There are control measures for:

  • work scheduling – for example, making sure workers take regular breaks
  • shift work and rosters – for example, setting shift rosters ahead of time to allow workers to plan leisure time
  • job demands – for example, introducing job rotation to limit a build-up of mental and physical fatigue
  • environmental conditions – for example, providing a cool area where workers can take a rest break and rehydrate in hot work environments
  • non-work-related conditions – for example, developing a fatigue policy for all workers including managers and supervisors.

A fatigue policy isn’t mandatory but may be an effective way to communicate your organisation’s procedures to workers. If you do use a policy, consider including information like descriptions on roles and responsibilities of supervisors and workers and the maximum shift length.

Also, providing information and training to workers about fatigue and the associated risks will not only help them to do their job, but also implement their own control measures to minimise the risk of fatigue at work.

Once you’ve introduced control measures, you should monitor and review them regularly to make sure they’re still effectively managing fatigue. Consider implementing trial periods for any new work schedules and encouraging workers to provide feedback on how well they’re working.

To work out how often you should monitor and review your risk controls, think about the level of risk – high-risk hazards need more regular assessments.

You should also review your control measures when:

  • there is any indication risks are not being controlled
  • new tasks, equipment, procedures, rosters or schedules are introduced
  • changes are proposed to the work environment, working hours, schedules and rosters
  • there’s an incident due to fatigue at your place of work
  • new information regarding fatigue becomes available
  • the results of consultation, including a request from a health and safety representative, indicate that a review is necessary.

Standards and compliance

The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (the WHS Act) provides a framework to protect the health, safety and welfare of all workers at your place of work. It also protects the health and safety of all other people who might be affected by the work.

Code of practice

You should read the How to Manage Work Health and Safety Risks Code of Practice 2011 (PDF, 1.02 MB) carefully to make sure your business is complying with the health and safety duties in the WHS Act.

Related links