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Fatigue… Is it the Cracked Step in the Workplace Ladder?

For the past few years, it’s hard; actually pretty much impossible, not to see depression mentioned in the same article as “FIFO”. With the tragic results of depression being well publicized, especially within the working away community, it’s hard to argue the correlation here.

As I am far from an expert on depression and have had little direct exposure to its effects and potentially devastating outcomes, I will not comment on the extent to which I think it affects the away worker community.

I can tell you that according to the ABS, approx. 45% of all Australians will experience mental illness / disorder in their life time. Also, approx. 6% of young Australian’s will be diagnosed with depression this year and many more will go under diagnosed and therefore untreated.

But, what I do know about from first hand experience, is fatigue. For me, fatigue is probably the biggest risk for away workers like me and something that needs to be pro-actively managed. From what I have researched on fatigue, there seems to be a direct correlation between increased levels of fatigue and clinically diagnosed depression.

In fact, some studies have shown that patients suffering from fatigue are three times more likely to be diagnosed with depression. So..by some kind of rational reasoning; if we can effectively manage our fatigue levels, there is a good chance of limiting the onset or effects of depression?

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Safe Work Australia defines fatigue as “a state of mental and / physical exhaustion that reduces a person’s ability to perform work safely and effectively”. In my line of work, as with most others, the key word here is SAFELY.

I work on a Mega Project. My team works in construction, commissioning and live operational areas and the hazards that exist in our everyday work environment are extreme and varied. Stuff like:

  • Simultaneous Operations: a dynamic mix of large construction, live commissioning and operational plant and process
  • 24 hr schedules
  • Very large and heavy machinery constantly moving around site…moving other large equipment around site
  • Energised High Voltage equipment, high pressure gas / water, live chemical / oil lines and many other process elements
  • Work crews constantly working overhead…at great heights with heavy objects
  • Extremes in weather and site temperatures
  • New to site / new to the industry employees
  • Countless slip / trip / fall obstacles
  • A constantly evolving, changing and extremely challenging work environment.

Given all the above, safety needs to be at the fore front of everyone’s mind and all hazards on site need to be effectively managed. But, when fatigue effects this commitment to safety, many people’s lives can be placed in danger. It could be as easy as forgetting to complete a checklist, overlooking putting a tool in a pouch at the top of a 30 metre scaffold or forgetting to put on your safety glasses on.

All of which are part of everyday work and all can be disregarded by a fatigued mind…and can result and serious and irreversible personal injury.

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Fatigue management is a big deal for our team leadership and is taken very seriously. I believe that it is not only for the sake of safety and effectiveness in the workplace that one’s fatigue needs to be managed. When we go home to our families and friends, we want to enjoy our time off.

If we arrive home fatigued after working away for a period of time, it can limit our ability to enjoy the fruits of our hard work. We all want to enjoy the time off with the kids, with the partner, family and friends. We don’t want to spend a couple of days getting over the effects of an exhausting trip away working.

Realistically, if we arrive home overly fatigued, we can place our loved ones in danger also. Most of us will drive. Some will use power tools, lawn mowers, edge trimmers; even work at heights on ladders etc. One error in judgement due to fatigue and those around us are placed in the line of fire.

Take me for example. I am a single father of three rambunctious little wee mees who just want to spend 9 days running, playing, laughing and loving the world with their Dad. It takes a lot of energy but I do pride myself of being one of those Dads who can keep up.

Those close to me always say “you need to go back to work for a rest!!”. But this time is my rest. This is how I unwind. One of the things I love about my job is the unhindered time I get with my kids…and is why I consciously manage my fatigue while away; especially in that last week before I come home.

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When I am home, I am busy but try not to be frantic. My time is usually 75% accounted for before I arrive home but I know I can’t over do it; this just leads to frustration, anxiety…and fatigue.

I also make a conscious plan to come home as refreshed as possible for my break. We are constantly driving up and down the coast, going on play dates and the kids are always helping me around the house. One lapse in concentration in this time is un-thinkable.

So, this then begs the question, “so what about travelling back to work fatigued?” Going back to work as free from fatigue as possible is just as important as it is coming home. Not only my livelihood, but that of many others relies on my presence of mind while at work. This applies to any job that requires a decision making process to be made by a clear head.

Also, working away is exhausting; and in turn, fatiguing. If we return with excessive levels of fatigue, it can make coping with the fatigue hazards of a normal roster just that little bit harder…not to mention the hazards that come from left field; magnifying the effects of being away from home!

So, what makes me fatigued? How do I manage it? Writing this blog, I have tried to narrow down to a top 5 or something that would attract your attention in the title. But you know, there are so many small little contributing factors in my day to day job, and FIFO life in general, that it was hard to settle on a few.

So, in true management fashion, I’ve turned my thought processes into and diagram. So with the aid of some airport coffee shop crayons, here is my attempt to visually display my fatigue management strategy…as briefly as possible.

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This is by no means an expert’s guide to fatigue management. It is purely me trying to put some tangibility to something we all need to do daily but I guess never really think about. This process will change from person to person and so will the fatigue hazards.

Also, factors such as length of time away, length of break at home, tolerance level of fatigue and exposure to various fatigue hazards will also vary from person to person, day to day, trip away to trip away. We are all different and will all have different coping strategies and actions plans.

I’m sure there is so much input from other workers on this subject. I’d love to hear it and share it in an effort to share the knowledge about coping with the rigours of working away.

As I mentioned above, if we can help just one person manage their fatigue to a point that mitigates depression, then we have all done a wonderful thing.

Don’t let fatigue management be the old cracked step in your workplace ladder. Work to strengthen it so it supports your weight and lets you move closer to the top…and not break under the pressure and send you falling to the ground.

And remember, the one person who is ultimately responsible for your fatigue is…YOU.

Until the next instalment; keep safe and stay connected!

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  1. […] my blog on fatigue (…is it the cracked step in the work place ladder) I mentioned that one of the main causes of fatigue in our industry is shift work; particularly night […]

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