Fatigue - Why Is it So Difficult To Manage?


Managing fatigue is not just an issue for people on the road or when there are hazards around. Even a walk across the warehouse can be subject to fatigue that can result in an incident.

The first issue is that fatigue is difficult to recognise quickly.

The second issue is that even when we recognise it, we often do very little to compensate for it. This is even though we consciously know that it increases risk.

Why is that?

Research has discovered that:

"goal-directed attention is shown to be negatively affected by mental fatigue, while stimulus-driven attention was largely unaffected"

What does this mean?

Let’s take the example of driving a car – an activity that most of us find highly automated. The research found that when driving while mildly fatigued, the driver’s ability to focus on the road and other vehicles (goal-directed attention) diminishes. However, their ability to operate a car (stimulus-directed attention) does not.

In other words, we can do the mechanics of driving - turning the steering wheel, using the brake, etc - "just fine". But because we can do this, we think we are paying a good deal of attention to the road and other cars. The research found that we are not.

Fatigue shuts down our ability to recognise when we are fatigued.

When we combine our belief that we drive “just fine” with the difficulty of recognising fatigue "in the moment", we end up doing little about it. Of course, the more we delay action the more fatigue sets in. This increases how difficult doing something about it becomes. This is not easy to reverse, especially if you’ve driven in this state plenty of times before and nothing harmful has ever happened.

Imagine what would happen if every time you drove fatigued you ended up having a head on. How many of these would you need to change what you do? That’s right, not many.

Here’s three ways you can help your workers recognise the dangers:

  • Help them appreciate that fatigue can be a major risk in anything they do.

  • Discuss the effects of fatigue openly in safety meetings.

  • Conduct training that provides workers with the skills required to recognise it early and do something meaningful about it.

Better planning can avoid or minimise fatigue. But life doesn’t always follow the plan, even if one exists.

Next Time: Autopilot Behaviour - Why is it so common?

This blog is an excerpt from Third Generation Safety: The Missing Piece by Cristian Sylvestre.

Cristian takes what neuroscience is revealing about how the brain functions, explaining how human performance could impact personal safety and what individuals and organisations can do about it. TO BE RELEASED SOON

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