Counting the true OHS cost of poor sleep and fatigue management

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Thursday, 2 March, 2023 - 12:45
Industry news
National News

Recognition of lack of sleep as a contributing or causal factor in workplace incidents is a common gap in workplace incident investigations, according to an expert in the area.

Although many such investigations now consider and ask questions about prior sleep, rarely do investigators get past the term ‘human error’ when an incident occurs due to a worker making fundamental errors, said fatigue risk management specialist Dr Nicholas Mabbott.

“In these cases, re-training workers does not change the fact that some people just don’t sleep that well,” he said.

“This is something we might notice when we drive cars and on the odd occasion make a turn or perform a manoeuvre that puts us in front of other vehicles, and we rely on them to avoid us. These can often be traced back to how we slept the previous evening.

“This is something I have been investigating for WA Police’s major crash division for several years now and sleep plays a causal role in these fatal crashes,” said Mabbott, who was speaking ahead of the upcoming AIHS National Health and Safety Conference, which will be held from 30 May to 1 June 2023 at the Brisbane Convention Centre.

“Another glaring error made by organisations is that fatigue risk is low because they only work day shift. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Mabbott.

In 2014, for example, he was asked to assist a construction company that had signed an EBA on working 14 consecutive nightshifts to finish a job on time.

The request for help came after a spate of fatal crashes involving shift workers in the region driving home from nightshift.

“I recommended 36 controls to implement, which they did. This included each and every nightshift worker attending a three-hour sleep and fatigue management awareness session,” he said.

“At the end of one year, with 100 permanent nightshift workers, working 14 nights followed by 7 days off, there was one finger injury treated in the workplace with no lost time.

“I tried to convince the group to deliver the same sessions to dayshift workers, but they resisted, stating the reduced risk. There were several incidents including the hospitalisation of a dayshift worker.”

Mabbott, who serves as the director of Beyond Midnight Consulting, said there appears to be some industry leaders and a lot of organisations lagging well behind when it comes to understanding the role of sleep and fatigue in workplace incidents.

“I have delivered sleep and fatigue management training to just over 29,000 people and probably 27,000 of them would be in mining,” he said.

In mining, there is a strong recognition that the benefit of such training produces a higher level of safety performance, and more recently, an increase in health and wellness has been realised.

However, the organisations that could really benefit from sleep and fatigue education are the health (hospital staff and all practitioners), construction and transport sectors.

“All of the above-stated organisations are very high risk and have incidents in high numbers,” he said.

When organisations assume workers sleep well enough to not require any form of sleep and fatigue awareness training, he said they seriously underestimate the detrimental effects that inadequate sleep has on people.

“For example, there are 80 known sleep disorders, there is a war on sleep (having young children disturb sleep, incorrect use of drugs such as medications, alcohol and caffeine, television, gaming and social media and the fear of missing out, pain and mental health issues), and a whole lot of sleep nonchalance (very little concern about obtaining adequate sleep – ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’),” said Mabbott.

It is well known that people who regularly get less than the recommended 7.5 hours of sleep do not recognise the impairment they carry with them on a daily basis, according to Mabbott, who said the true measure of this would be if you sit down in the early afternoon and feel sleepy, you have a sleep debt.

“When I provide evidence in courtrooms I often quote the level of fatigue risk attributed to hours of sleep obtained,” he said.

For example, a six-hour sleep doubles the risk of an incident, while a five-hour sleep will triple that risk and four hours or less increases the risk by up to 12 times that same person would have, obtaining 7-8 hours of sleep.

Mabbott affirmed organisations and OHS professionals would be astounded by the results of having their workers complete a confidential survey on how much sleep they get (and the quality of sleep) on dayshift and on night shift.

“A couple of years ago a mine in Queensland shared some data captured on an eye-monitoring device in a haul truck,” said Mabbott, who explained that (being in phase one of testing) the device captured data but did not intervene (this occurs in phase 2 and 3).

One man had a 27-second microsleep, he said: “actually, this is not a microsleep but more of a true sleep onset. So often we find out the hard way that our workers are not sleeping that well for varying reasons,” he said.


Mabbott will be delivering a presentation at the upcoming AIHS National Health and Safety Conference, which will be held from 30 May to 1 June 2023 at the Brisbane Convention Centre. This year’s conference theme is “Influence for Impact” and the conference will feature a range of speakers who will examine different aspects of the theme. For more information please call (03) 8336 1995, email or visit the event website.