Tired workers could be as dangerous as those who are drunk or stoned, professor warns

Central Queensland University professor Drew Dawson speaks about the affect fatigue at the Health and Safety Association ...
MARK TANTRUM

Central Queensland University professor Drew Dawson speaks about the affect fatigue at the Health and Safety Association of New Zealand conference at Te Papa in Wellington.

Don't blame your work roster for making you so tired – it could be your social life that's the culprit.

Central Queensland University professor Drew Dawson has told a conference in Wellington that about half the time people are tired at work is not because of a roster, but because of things going on outside work.

Employees have a responsibility to show up well-rested, in the same way they should not turn up drunk or high, he told Health and Safety Association NZ conference at Te Papa on Thursday.

"You have to show the risk of working fatigued is less than the risk of not working," Dawson said.

"You have to show the risk of working fatigued is less than the risk of not working," Dawson said.

He suggested a risk assessment for people who had not had enough sleep, and suggested changing the language from "I'm tired" to a more formal "I have not had sufficient sleep to do this task".

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Workers needed to put their hands up if they hadn't had enough sleep, and anyone who had less than six hours could face a "yellow card" from bosses, while five or less could get a "red card".

"It's a cold cup of tea and a conversation with the boss if it's happening too often."

The average worker was unfit for work three or four times a year because of non-work related activities, he said.

Just last month, the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists published a report showing half of New Zealand's public hospital specialists felt burned-out, potentially affecting patient care and increasing the risk of medical errors.

District health boards claimed the burnout was overstated, but did not deny it was a problem.

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However, if health boards cut doctors' working hours there might not be enough staff to fill the gaps, Dawson said.

"You have to show the risk of working fatigued is less than the risk of not working."

And if you asked people if they would rather have a tired doctor than none at all, most would take the tired option.

Dawson said one of the mistakes tired doctors made involved wrong dosages. They could mitigate the risks by taking into account their tiredness, and having other staff double-check work if necessary.

Staff asked to irregularly work at night were highly likely to experience fatigue.

Another issue was waking sleeping doctors with after-hours phone calls and expecting a quick, accurate response.

Instead, nurses might chat with them for a bit first, then repeat back any advice later before hanging up.

A WorkSafe spokesperson pointed to issues with fatigue being apparent in the agriculture and construction sectors, and said employers did not have the sole responsibility for managing workplace fatigue.

Employees should take all practicable steps to keep themselves, and other people around them, safe.

 - Stuff

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