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Editorial | Managing fatigue in mining

Sep 30, 2019

By Matthew Hubbard, Mine training supervisor – NSW

Remaining focused and alert on the job when the body clock usually is asleep or fatigued is an enormous challenge.

There is no doubt that you’ve experienced fatigue behind the wheel and struggled to keep concentrate on the road, resorting to turning up the radio, dropping the windows or striking up a conversation with yourself.  The result will more often than not result in reduced reaction times, reduced concentration, and ultimately, micro-sleeps which can lead to deadly consequences. 

Over the past 10 years, there has been a significant improvement focus by the New South Wales mining regulators on fatigue risks.

While the focus of our customers is on fatigue identification and management, in my role as a Mine Training Supervisor the main discussion I have with our new trainees in the Hunter Valley is: what is fatigue, what exacerbates fatigue and what can I do about it?

What is fatigue?

Fatigue is more than just being tired; it’s the point where you have reached your physical and mental limits, and you are unable to continue.

It effectively means that longer periods of wakefulness increase the risk of fatigue impairment, ranging from a drop in mood, effective communication and comprehension, reduction in reaction times and strength and ultimately micro-sleeps as shown in the spectrum below.

Credit: Fatigue Management Guide, NSW Resources Regulator, NSW Governemt

The challenges which accompany this state can affect people in all industries, but I find in my role that it is especially problematic to people working nightshifts and operating heavy vehicles.

For our Programmed mining trainees – the majority of whom are new to the industry – it does take some time to adjust to the mental demands of undertaking nightshifts. Spending the night operating large mining equipment in an open cut mine driving the same route in the dark is taxing and requires a lot of focus despite the monotony.

This is especially relevant when you consider that being awake for 17 hours is equivalent to a blood alcohol level 0.05, the legal limit for driving a vehicle on Australian roads. For obvious reasons, fatigue is dangerous both at work and at home.

In a workplace like the ones staffed by our mining trainees, they are supported, empowered and have a legal responsibility to stop the task immediately if they, or someone else, appears to be fatigued. This means our trainees need to know how to avoid fatigue, as well as know how to identify it in themselves or others.

Symptoms of fatigue

Interestingly, fatigued personnel are not great at recognising their levels of alertness deteriorating and fatigue impairment creeping in. Common signs and symptoms of fatigue:

  • excessive yawning
  • falling asleep (different to micro-sleeping)
  • poor concentration
  • impaired decision making
  • slow reflexes

It is important also to note that many other factors can contribute and exacerbate the onset of fatigue even when one doesn’t feel that they should be. Some common examples of these factors include:

  • Mental health illnesses such as stress, anxiety and depression
  • Lifestyle factors, such as childcare, or elder care
  • Health conditions, such as sleep apnoea
  • Alcohol and drug dependencies
  • Noisy neighbours
  • Excess work hours
  • Study and education demands
  • Difficult work environment, e.g. labour-intensive activities, extreme weather conditions
So what can we do about managing the risk of fatigue?

There is no substitute for quality sleep, but staying hydrated, eating healthily, and doing regular physical activity can help our people maintain sufficient energy levels to complete tasks safely.

Below are some of the advice we provide to our trainees in the mining sector to help minimise the risk of fatigue-related incidents:

  • Aim for seven to eight hours sleep within 24 hours
  • Try to switch off from technology at least a half an hour before bed
  • Ideal ambient sleep temperatures in rooms should be around 16 degrees
  • Discuss with your manager or a colleague if there are parts of your job that are impacting on your fatigue levels, such as your roster and shift cycle
  • Reach out to EAP for support to work through personal factors such as anxiety, work/personal stresses and depression
  • Always check in on your mates and have an R U OK? conversation when they display consistently fatigue-related symptoms

Achieving ZERO HARM is just as much about what we do as much as what we say. We want to support our team to be healthy both mentally and physically, and we all have a duty of care to stop the job when it’s not safe, and fatigue is no exception.

So, be sure to look out for signs of fatigue in yourself and others, regardless of your role, and remember that it’s the responsibility of all of us to stay safe at work.

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