Electrical Service Work and Worker Fatigue: Take Care of Yourself!

Ron Widup Columns, Fall 2019 Columns, Safety Corner

Chances are you are in an electrical career you love: Testing, maintaining, installing, commissioning, designing, rebuilding, engineering, improving…and generally making electrical power systems safer and better.

But are you doing so with a focus on managing the possible onset of acute or chronic fatigue? We live in a busy world — do more with less; be efficient in your tasks; balance work, family, hobbies; keep up with industry rules; keep your phone on and answer emails….and make some cash along the way to pay for all of life’s expenses.

But be careful! Doing too much at one time or for too many days in a row can lead to worker fatigue and compromise your personal safety or the safety of those around you.

OSHA provides several interesting facts about worker fatigue. For instance, did you know that decreased alertness was found to be a contributing factor in these industrial incidents?

  • Texas City BP Oil Refinery Explosion
  • Colgan Air Loss of Control on Approach
  • Space Shuttle Challenger Accident
  • Chernobyl and Three Mile Island Nuclear Accidents

In addition to these high-profile events, we all remember incidents we personally know of or have been involved in, and we likely have a few that can be directly related to fatigue. When you have been hurt or something goes awry, was it that last ski run of the day, the last substation on the list, the end of a long day, or after “I can do one more [insert task here]?”

So why wouldn’t we want to take care of our people and manage their safety and health when doing electrical work for long periods of time — either in a single day or over several consecutive days? Obviously, we would.

In 1984, I was involved in an arc flash incident. A 400-amp, 480-volt automatic transfer switch blew up and burned my face and arms. Not fun. And guess what: I was working on switch number seven — the last one of the day. Was I as fresh on switch number seven as I was on switch number one? Not a chance.

Develop or Follow a Fatigue Policy

Does your company have a fatigue policy? If not, it should. We work in a potentially very dangerous industry that involves a hazard you can’t see, you can’t smell, and you can’t touch. You MUST be alert, aware, and always engaged. Always. Not doing so can have dire consequences.

Several things that might impact our level of fatigue normally fall into two categories: 1) lifestyle or 2) other physical/mental conditions.

Fatigue in the lifestyle category can be related to:

  • Use of alcohol or drugs
  • Excess physical activity shortly before going to bed
  • Jet lag
  • Not allowing enough time to get the rest your body needs
  • Medications such as antihistamines and cough medicines
  • Unhealthy eating habits that cause indigestion or upset stomach

Fatigue can also be brought about by other physical or mental conditions:

  • Physical illnesses, like cancer, emphysema, COPD, and various heart conditions that affect your ability to rest
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Sleep apnea, which may keep your sleep from being restful
  • Stress, when you just can’t seem to turn your brain off about things that bother or upset you
  • Simply working too much (keep reading)

Key Point!

The most common causes of fatigue, and often the most overlooked, can fall into these two categories: 1) extended or extreme work hours, or 2) continuous work days without breaks in the schedule. You can get yourself in trouble if you don’t monitor your health and allow for needed rest time.   

Acute fatigue results from short-term sleep loss or from short periods of heavy physical or mental work. This type of fatigue can be reversed by sleep and relaxation.

Chronic fatigue is the constant, severe state of tiredness that is not relieved by rest. Symptoms are similar to the flu and can last longer than six months.

So What Can You Do?

First, step back and think about it. How do you manage your projects? Your customers? And most important, yourself and your people? Take an honest assessment of how you manage your time, and if you are pushing yourself too hard, be proactive and change the situation.

Human performance training teaches us that we are fallible. We make mistakes. From time to time, we can have a lapse in judgment, and this can lead to disastrous consequences.

Here are a few key points to think about when it comes to fatigue management:

  • Limit work shifts to 14–16 hours max. If the length of a shift is to be extended beyond 16 hours, senior management should be notified and mitigation steps to reduce hazards should be developed and approved.
  • Employees who have worked 16 or more hours should be provided with a rest break of at least 8 hours.
  • Work schedules should not exceed 14 consecutive day or night shifts, regardless of the number of hours worked per shift.
  • Work sites should adhere to a schedule of work not to exceed 21 consecutive day or night shifts, regardless of number of hours worked per shift.
  • Personnel should be scheduled for a minimum of 36 consecutive hours off after a 14- or 21-day work schedule.
  • Have some fun in your life!

Conclusion

According to 2004 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost 15 million Americans work full time on evening shift, night shift, rotating shifts, or other employer-arranged irregular schedules. According to U.S. National Health Interview data from 2010, almost 19% of working adults work 48 hours or more per week, and more than 7% work 60 hours or more. Both shift work and long work hours have been associated with health and safety risks.

Electrical work, emergency outages both planned and unplanned, and long-term projects exacerbate the worker fatigue issue… because we must always be safe, error free, and aware of the hazards around us, regardless of the time of day or number of hours worked. Remember: We can’t see, hear, or smell an electrical hazard! Make sure fatigue doesn’t affect you or your workforce.

Here’s some advice for you: Get some rest! Good night.

References

ANSI/API Recommended Practice 755, Second Edition, Fatigue Risk Management Systems for Personnel in the Refining and Petrochemical Industries, May 2019.

OSHA Worker Fatigue Awareness:

https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/workerfatigue/index.html.

Colgan Air Disaster:

https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Reports/AAR1001.pdf.

BP America Refinery Explosion:

https://www.csb.gov/file.aspx?DocumentId=5596.

Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, Rogers Commission Report:

https://spaceflight.nasa.gov/outreach/SignificantIncidents/assets/rogers_commission_report.pdf.

Ron Widup, Shermco Industries Vice Chairman and Senior Advisor, Technical Services has been with Shermco since 1983, and currently serves on the company’s board of directors. He is a member of Technical Committee on NFPA 70E, Electrical Safety in the Workplace; a Principal Member of National Electrical Code (NFPA 70) Code Panel 11; a Principal Member of the Technical Committee on NFPA 790, Standard for Competency of Third-Party Evaluation Bodies; a Principal Member of the Technical Committee on NFPA 791, Recommended Practice and Procedures for Unlabeled Electrical Equipment Evaluation; a member of the Technical Committee on NFPA 70B, Recommended Practice for Electrical Equipment Maintenance, and Vice Chair for IEEE Std. 3007.3, Recommended Practice for Electrical Safety in Industrial and Commercial Power Systems. Ron also serves on NETA’s board of directors and Standards Review Council. He is a NETA Certified Level 4 Senior Test Technician, a State of Texas Journeyman Electrician, an IEEE Standards Association member, an Inspector Member of the International Association of Electrical Inspectors, and an NFPA Certified Electrical Safety Compliance Professional (CESCP).