February 14, 2019

Investigators recently warned that pilot fatigue was a factor in a “near miss” incident in San Francisco that could have resulted in the “worst aviation accident in history.” Yet, fatigue remains an under-recognized risk to workplace health and safety. Not only does fatigue contribute to a number of health issues, such as heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure, but it is also a significant form of impairment: A worker who has been awake for 21 hours shows impairment similar to someone with a blood alcohol content of 0.08, which is the legal limit for drivers in Canada. In this session, speakers with expertise in work-related fatigue and labour law will provide guidance on limiting work practices that contribute to fatigue and on effectively dealing with fatigue that adversely affects the workplace.

Fatigue Generally

  • How significant is fatigue as a workplace health and safety issue? To what degree is fatigue caused by workplace factors – such as scheduling practices, overtime, long shifts, etc. – and to what degree is it caused by family responsibilities, personal choices regarding sleep, etc.?
  • How is fatigue related to chronic health conditions? What health conditions does fatigue cause and what health conditions cause fatigue?

Reducing the risks of impairment due to fatigue

  • Can fatigue be measured? What are the signs that a worker is impaired by fatigue? Can they be distinguished from signs of impairment due to alcohol or other substances? Does it matter what the cause of the impairment is?
  • At what point should overtime or the length of a shift be considered a health and safety risk? Are shifts of a certain length, for example, 18 or 24 hours, inherently dangerous? Does the risk of fatigue depend on the working conditions in different occupations?
  • Can workers refuse to work overtime or long shifts on the basis that the associated fatigue would constitute a danger under health and safety legislation?
  • What can workplaces do to keep workers alert?

Responding to fatigued workers

  • How should managers or supervisors respond if a worker is nodding off at work? Is a disciplinary response always warranted, or, in certain circumstances, might an employer have an obligation to inquire as to whether an employee’s sleepiness at work is due to a disability?
  • How strong must the connection be between an employee’s disability and his or her propensity to fall asleep at work in order for the conduct to be considered non-culpable?
  • Is “fatigue” itself, or lack of energy, in the absence of some other medical diagnosis, a disability for the purposes of taking sick leave, obtaining disability benefits, or accommodation? Is that what “chronic fatigue” is – a chronic lack of energy without a clear explanation?
  • Are sleep disorders, such as circadian sleep rhythm disorder, narcolepsy, sleep apnea, etc., disabilities that must be accommodated? What about “shift work sleep disorder?”
  • What constitutes reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities that cause them to be tired at work? Shift changes? Allowances for absences due to over-sleeping? Working from home, so the employee can better manage fatigue/wakefulness?