Why Fatigue Matters in Mining
Evidence has been accumulating for some time that sleep and fatigue are two of the biggest risk factors in heavy industry. Whether it’s when operating equipment, making decisions, or preserving mental wellbeing, the amount of sleep that workers are getting becomes a factor.
Thankfully, along with the research on sleep deprivation and fatigue, we’ve also seen an increasing number of tools and recommendations that manage and anticipate fatigue. In this article, we’ll be looking at some of the ways that mining operations directly lead to worker fatigue, and what can be done to stop fatigue before it begins at your worksite.
A Uniquely At-Risk Industry
Mining operations are uniquely at risk from the ways that their work and environment contribute to fatigue. The regularity of sleep, the quality of sleep, and the sleep schedule all contribute to how well rested someone is. This means that workers are impacted not only by the amount of sleep they get, but also by the timing and the conditions of their sleep.
Since mining operations often rely on shift work and long days, workers are frequently deprived of sleep. When workers do sleep, an irregular sleep schedule makes fatigue an even greater risk. Sleep outside of regular daylight hours is already less restful, and the environmental factors in mining make the problem worse.
Dark work environments are a safety concern on their own, but the darkness in underground mines can also affect the circadian rhythm of miners. As shift workers in mines are beginning their daily routine, the lack of natural daylight causes the brain to believe that it’s time to sleep. This same effect from artificial lighting also means that workers are never properly awake throughout their workday.
Side Effects to Workers
With sleep loss and fatigue come a variety of side effects for workers. Heavy levels of fatigue have similar symptoms to intoxication from alcohol. Reaction times, speed, accuracy, injury rates, and decision making are all affected by fatigue. Fatigued workers also take greater risks and engage in more dangerous behaviour than well-rested workers.
To make matters worse, the mining industry is often bound by business need when it comes to adopting fatigue risk management. Live-in camps usually have increased sleep levels thanks to the sparse leisure activities available, but evidence suggests that when camps operate on a “seven day, seven night” shift pattern, worker circadian rhythms may never truly adapt. Looking at workers in “fly-in, fly-out” operations, we see that they usually get less sleep during work days compared to days off.
Fatigue Affects Everyone
Now that we’ve seen how mining operations contribute to poor sleep hygiene, the repercussions for safety should become apparent. A wide variety of studies have shown that poor sleep and fatigue lead to increased risk of injuries in everyone from preschoolers to the elderly. The threat of injuries is significant in heavy industry – and mining in particular. When workers control large equipment while fatigued, the safety of their colleagues is also a concern.
In 2010, a study of more than 40,000 Finnish public sector workers in the Journal of Sleep Research found that “occupational injuries are particularly likely among workers with sleep disturbances.” When it came to finding ways to use this information, the same report concluded that “identifying people with disturbed sleep may be important in preventing work‐related injuries.”
Studies have shown that in the mining industry, managing the fatigue of workers is a key factor for effective safety systems. A study by the U.S. Bureau of Mines showed that “‘perceptual-cognitive-motor’ errors (related to the more common term, “human error”) were a causal factor in 93 per cent of the accidents.” With this in mind, it’s important to reduce fatigue as a risk factor in any mining operation.
Adjusting shift start times, reducing consecutive working days, and minimizing changes to shifts can allow for more regular sleeping habits. Unfortunately, mines can’t always adjust their operations to accommodate an ideal sleep schedule for workers. In order to stay ahead of fatigue, mines often rely on self reporting, which asks workers to accurately assess their own mental state. The main issue with most available solutions is that they’re reactive in nature, and don’t proactively solve the issue of fatigue within the workforce.
What Can Be Done?
High-risk work environments need a solution for fatigue that’s proactive and not reactive. While self reporting by workers can help to highlight risks, technology has been developed that can actually predict fatigue in advance. By combining the SAFTE™ Fatigue Model that was developed by the US Army Research Lab and modern, wearable technology, Fatigue Science provides tools for predicting when workers will reach dangerous levels of impairment from fatigue.
The Fatigue Science Readiband™ is a wrist-worn device that captures sleep data, and it’s proven to be 93 per cent as effective as lab-tested sleep monitoring. The unobtrusive nature of the band allows it to provide data for any type of worker in order to capture all kinds of sleep, including naps. Combined with a smart phone app that displays fatigue levels in a simple format, workers can predicatively see when they’ll reach critical fatigue levels in much the same way they might check the weather before working outdoors.
The Right Tools for the Job
Mining operations face unique risks from fatigue that require a comprehensive solution. By providing workers with predictive tools that allow them to manage their fatigue proactively, you allow them to make better decisions. Focusing on empowerment over enforcement is key, because you need everyone on board to make fatigue matter in your workplace.
Unlike physical exhaustion, beating mental fatigue requires planning. It’s impossible to remove fatigue completely from your workforce, but with the right tools it’s possible to understand how fatigue will affect your workers and react accordingly.
About Fatigue Science
Fatigue Science was founded in 2006 and is based out of Vancouver, BC. With a platform based on the SAFTE™ Fatigue Model developed by the US Army Research Lab, Fatigue Science is a trusted pioneer in sleep and its relationship to human performance. Their Readiband™ wearable device allows workers to quantify and predict fatigue in the workplace and helps mitigate risks related to that fatigue. This technology has won several awards for innovation, and has been relied upon by heavy industry, military, and sports teams in the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL.