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More attention to workplace fatigue needed

Posted On October 28, 2011

Fatigue is the number one accident risk factor for construction workers and requires better recognition by occupational health and safety managers in many other sectors as well, a University of Sydney researcher told the Safety Institute of Australia’s Safety Conference this week.

Dr Margaret Chan said workers doing shifts of 17 hours straight have been shown to have impairments equivalent or greater than 0.5% alcohol level that makes it illegal to drive or operate heavy machinery.

Fatigue is another risk factor, like fall hazards or exposure to unguarded machinery, that needs to be managed in the workplace under the national OHS Act, that comes in from January 2012. If it is not properly managed, depending on specific circumstances, persons conducting a busines could attract the higher penalties that apply under the new Act for breaches of general duties.

"The big problem is that a lot of workers don't even know their rights," Dr Chan told the Sydney Morning Herald

"From next year, it's not just direct employees but independent contractors and contractors who work from home who will be covered by this legislation."

Dr Chan says employer claims that workers should have known not to cut corners is no defence.  "Workers take short cuts when they are really tired. They may ignore safety signage in the same way a person influenced by alcohol could.”

Dr Chan’s original research project was based on four high-profile oil and gas Sino joint-venture construction projects in Mainland China. She is currently working on projects in the Bowen Basin in Queensland and in WA.

"Australian construction companies - based locally or overseas - need to place greater emphasis on the importance of recovery, a significant moderator of fatigue. Managers should ensure workers take regular breaks from work, and schedule shift rosters to allow the body to adapt to the circadian rhythm. They should also provide facilities allowing workers to recover from the fatigue and stress that comes with working in a high-risk environment.

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