Just how deadly workplace fatigue can be in the oil and gas industry was on full display on March 23, 2005, when explosions and fires tore through an isomerization unit at the BP Texas City refinery.
The subsequent investigation into the accident — which killed 15 workers and injured 180 others — revealed that the isomerization unit operators were likely fatigued from working 12-hour shifts. Some worked as many as 29 consecutive days, which affected their judgement and problem-solving skills.
As a result of the incident, the American Petroleum Institute (API) issued a set of fatigue risk mitigation guidelines under the heading Recommended Practice 755, in response to heightened concerns about the effect of fatigue on employee productivity, morale and safety. Released in 2010, the practice called upon the industry to develop comprehensive systems to manage fatigue risks.
Canada’s energy industry appears to be moving in a similar direction. In September 2013, Enform, the Calgary-based safety association for the country’s upstream sector and six industry associations, released the Fatigue Risk Management Guiding Principles to address workplace fatigue.
The guidelines “extend from a long recognized risk in the industry that workers who typically get engaged in the oilfield may not be used to industry conditions,” says Enform president and CEO Cameron MacGillivray. These conditions include long hours of work on complex equipment in harsh weather.
Enform is working with a committee to develop a fatigue risk management framework to help the industry address the issue. The timing for its release hasn’t been settled, “but we hope to make significant progress this year,” MacGillivray says. Among other things, the guiding principles call for an integrated risk-based approach to manage fatigue and the development and implementation of fatigue risk management initiatives that combine scientific knowledge with operational experience.
According to MacGillivray, the issue of workplace fatigue has become more important because of changes in employee makeup. The industry used to hire a lot of “farm boys” who were used to working hard outdoors. Today, some newer workers may be “city slickers” or have different backgrounds, “so on the site, it’s more important that we help them address issues like fatigue and the realities of working long shifts in tough conditions,” he says.
MacGillivray notes that a number of tools are already available to industry, including employers’ and workers’ guides for preventing workplace fatigue.
But others say the energy industry is lagging in fighting workplace fatigue. Tackling fatigue, as with every other health and safety program, requires having a plan, says Pat Byrne, founder of the Vancouver-based fatigue risk management firm Fatigue Science. “I think the oil and gas industry in Canada is pretty slow in doing that. The fatigue risk management plans I’ve seen in the oil and gas industry are pretty outdated,” he says, and work schedules aren’t based on real science.
Byrne notes that workers at several Rio Tinto mines in Australia sit down with management to create individualized fatigue management plans, using software that takes into account commute distances and work schedules, “which is something they don’t do in Canada.” Commutes in Australia’s mining industry are long, much like the situation in Canada’s oil and gas sector.
Byrne suggests that employers sit down with workers and say: “‘Let’s apply your work hours, commute hours, and stick it into the software and see if we’re doing the right thing by you. Here’s the limits on the kinds of overtime you can work before you’re too fatigued.’ What the industry does now is guess at it.”
HARD TO DEFINE
Simply put, fatigue is the state of feeling very tired, resulting from insufficient sleep, prolonged mental or physical work or extended periods of stress or anxiety, says Karen Hamel, a training consultant at Northern College in Timmins, Ont., which offers a one-day course to help employers and employees recognize and manage workplace fatigue. Fatigue is defined by a lack of alertness and a decrease in mental and physical performance.
“Let’s face it: we need to care about what happens in any work environment,” she says. “The stats are real when it comes to personnel feeling drowsy during certain parts of the work day, falling asleep at the wheel and during shift work. The costs are great — not only to the organization, but also to the individual and their families.”
Fatigue levels are hard to measure, making it difficult to isolate the effect of fatigue on accident and injury rates, Hamel says. However, research has shown that when workers have slept for fewer than five hours before work or when workers have been awake for more than 16 hours, their chances of making mistakes due to fatigue significantly increase.
Australian studies have found that a worker who has gone 17 hours without sleep is at the same risk as someone with a blood alcohol content of 0.5 per cent, says psychologist Dr. Don Melnychuk, whose Edmonton-based company, Nadon Consulting Ltd., provides workshops in fatigue management. That’s about the same as three glasses of wine, three bottles of beer or three rum and cokes. “In most provinces, that would be an instant licence suspension,” he adds.
What’s more, shift work and long hours disrupt the circadian rhythm, which times every function of the body (sleep, wakefulness and alertness) according to a day-night cycle, Hamel says. “Although circadian rhythms are influenced by external cues like sunrise and sunset, they are basically controlled by our biological clock,” she says. “Individuals function best when they follow their body’s natural pattern of sleep, wakefulness and alertness. So when you factor in shift work and working long hours, an individual’s circadian rhythm can be impacted, thus causing fatigue and sleep deprivation.”
As well, research shows that people who work night shifts get only five to seven hours of sleep on average — an hour to an hour-and-a-half less sleep than people who work the same hours during the day, says Jan Chapell, senior technical specialist at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Hamilton, Ont.
Research also shows there should be emphasis not only on the amount of sleep people get, but on the notion of disrupted sleep, says Julian Barling, the Borden Professor of Leadership in the School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. and an expert on how fatigue affects leadership. “Even when people get eight hours sleep, if it’s disrupted sleep, we should be concerned,” he says. “In order for sleep to restore, you really need eight uninterrupted hours.”
Angela Angel, program manager of mobile worker wellness with Habitat Health Impact Consulting in Calgary, has interviewed many oil and gas industry workers for research she’s done on mobile work. She found the issue of working long hours and being physically and mentally exhausted came up frequently. “Many of these mobile working men described being exhausted and sleep-deprived.”
WORK HARD, PLAY HARD
Angel also found that shift work (such as four days on, four days off) may cause workers to use substances to help them keep pace with their “work hard, play hard mentality” or as a way of relaxation. In addition, a four-on, four-off work schedule may limit worker participation in regular home-life activities and increase the likelihood of drinking with fellow shift workers, she says.
Compounding the problem is that symptoms of workplace fatigue — which include lack of alertness or productivity, inability to concentrate and irritability — are often not obvious, Byrne says. “Science shows that people are very bad at recognizing when they’re fatigued.” That’s why the gold standard now is to have employers organize work schedules and commutes in a way that gives workers an opportunity to get the sleep they need.
To do so, there is software like FAST (Fatigue Avoidance Scheduling Tool), developed by the U.S. military and used by the Federal Aviation Administration and transportation departments in the U.S. and Canada, and Schedule Pro.
Shell Oil in the U.S. has been using Schedule Pro software for about two years to manage the complexity of scheduling its shift workers and to comply with Recommended Practice 755, says Sachin Agrawal, director of product development with EDP Software, the Vancouver-based maker of the software.
Agrawal says the North American oil and gas industry faces a unique challenge, given its tremendous growth in recent years. “They don’t have enough skilled workers, and every resource needs to be used as effectively as possible.” That makes it doubly important to optimize workforce utilization. While the industry increasingly appears to realize that fatigue is an important factor, “the approach to fatigue management is still probably in its infancy, given current technologies,” Agrawal says.
New technology, such as wearable wrist bands that measure biometrics, can provide individualized real-time readings of the kind of sleep workers are getting. This is really where the future of fatigue management is heading, Agrawal adds.
That’s where Fatigue Science’s Readiband comes into play. It provides workers feedback on the quality of sleep they’re getting and determines whether they comprise the 20 to 30 per cent who have biological sleep disorders, most of which are treatable. It can also highlight which workers have lifestyle issues or commute issues that prevent quality sleep. Workers with the former can get training, and those with commute issues can sit down with management to see what can be done.
Worn 24 hours a day, the Food and Drug Administration-approved sleep and fatigue analysis system provides clinical level sleep analysis — telling wearers when they went to sleep, woke up, how many times they woke up and their quality of sleep. Analyzing these sleep data can help determine how much risk workers are at for accidents.
Erin Kelly, communications specialist with Fatigue Science, has been wearing the Readiband since last October. “It’s provided me with some real insight into my sleep habits and a daily measurement of how the combination of my sleep and the time of day [circadian timing] contribute to cognitive performance.”
By wearing the device, Kelly has discovered that she does not have a sleep disorder and generally gets seven to eight hours of sleep per night. “Humans are really bad at being able to objectively assess or self-judge their sleep, so while I suspected that I slept okay, I never really knew,” she says.
Before using Readiband, workers are asked how much sleep they think they get, but the number often does not line up with what is gleaned from the Readiband data. “People tend to unintentionally over-report how much sleep they get,” Kelly says. “We have actually seen people self-report eight hours of sleep per night, and then it turns out they are actually getting half that amount because of a sleep disorder they had no idea about.
“It really underlines the importance of collecting objective sleep data, because if a company wants to start to assess fatigue and workplace fatigue risk, they can’t do that with assumptions or bad numbers,” she went on to say.
Dr. Melnychuk from Nadon Consulting says that there is a growing awareness that for workers to report to work, being fit for duty means being not only alcohol- and drug-free, but fatigue-free. And he says major oil and gas companies are increasingly putting safety at the forefront by adding fatigue to the equation.
The same can’t be said for smaller companies. “I think some of the smaller contractors who have very thin margins for profit and competition are the ones that push very hard and sometimes cut corners,” Dr. Melnychuk suggests.
Workers can take some easy steps to get a general idea about their levels of fatigue, based on the amount of sleep they get.
So says Dr. Melnychuk, who has given workshops on fatigue management to oil and gas industry clients. He takes people through the five-level Fatigue Hazard Control Model, which involves assessing the amount of sleep they’ve had in the last 24 and 48 hours, as well as the amount of time spent at work and travelling to and from work. Combining these factors creates fatigue risk points, and the higher the score, the more at risk workers are for hurting themselves.
A low score means there’s no problem, a medium score provides a heads-up and a high score means workers should be looking at control measures for fatigue — from taking extra breaks to power naps to working in less dangerous jobs.
Although it’s subjective, there’s also the Samn-Perelli fatigue checklist, which asks people to evaluate themselves on scale of one to seven: being fully alert (1), very lively (2), okay (3), a little tired (4), moderately tired (5), extremely tired (6) and completely exhausted (7).
If a lead foreman has a score of six or seven, “I don’t want this guy on a worksite where he could be very dangerous,” Dr. Melnychuk says, “so I’m going to downgrade his responsibilities.”
But for Byrne, trying to recognize symptoms of fatigue is “actually one of the worst things you can do. The symptoms of fatigue are not obvious to an external person or to the people themselves.”
As for how to reduce on-the-job fatigue, allowing workers to take naps during the day is something the industry should seriously consider, says Julian Barling from Queen’s University.
He notes that taking naps has become commonplace for long-range airline pilots. “If you’d have come to me 10, 15 years ago and said to me, ‘Pilots are going to get their naps,’ you probably would have been laughed out of the room.”
Adds Barling: “Is it possible that in some of the most unusual industries, we may see napping encouraged, almost enforced? Yes, it is. When the research starts to be really taken more seriously, people will realize just how positive those steps can be.”
But Byrne says that since fatigue risk management is in its infancy, the oil and gas industry hasn’t figured out yet how to address it. “I think the real challenge on fatigue risk management for the oil and gas industry is having their internal health and safety people up to speed on how to manage the issue. Industry is just starting to realize the importance of fatigue risk management, but it remains a work in progress.”
While the oil and gas industry may believe that fatigue is unique to them, Byrne says, “fatigue is unique to human beings, but it’s the consequences of how they design their scheduling and the resources they provide to workers that make the difference.”
Danny Kucharsky is a writer in Montreal.
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HITTING THE HIGHWAY
Highway 63, the main road between Edmonton and Alberta’s oilsands, has been dubbed the Highway of Death because of its many traffic fatalities over the years (46 alone between 2007 and 2012).
The Alberta government is twinning the highway to make it safer, but many say worker fatigue is a major contributing factor to accidents.
“In Alberta’s oil and gas industry, the number of workers falling asleep driving home and crashing their cars is pretty high,” says Pat Byrne, founder of Fatigue Science, a Vancouver company that uses technology to reduce fatigue.
Oilsands workers who work shifts of 10 or 11 days straight “may choose to hit the highway immediately after work to get home faster and maximize their time off,” says Angela Angel, program manager of mobile worker wellness with Habitat Health Impact Consulting in Calgary. Workers returning to Edmonton, Calgary or Fort McMurray “may be tired, less alert and more prone to speeding when on the highways, contributing significantly to highway collisions,” she says.
Julian Barling, an expert on the effect of fatigue on leadership at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., says driving home after tough work schedules should be a real concern. “If I could pass a rule, it would be that after working for two or three weeks, you would not be able to drive home. Because let’s be honest, people don’t finish a 12-hour shift and say, ‘I have to go to sleep and then go home,’ they go home.”
Up to a half of the fatalities in the energy industry are related to vehicular accidents, says Cameron MacGillivray, president and CEO of Enform. “This is a real issue in the industry for us to try to find better tools to try to help the workers when they’re driving, so that they’re well-rested and don’t suffer from highway hypnosis or other fatigue-related things that they can get into with lack of sleep,” he says, referring to the phenomenon of driving in a trance-like state while gazing at a fixed point.
Employers need to incorporate travel time as well as actual shift work “when they think about demands on a person’s system and the effect it may have on getting appropriate rest,” he says. This is something companies currently wrestle with: trying to reduce travel time to work sites.
However, Dr. Don Melnychuk, a psychologist and workplace fatigue expert in Edmonton, says many of the construction crews now twinning the highway have it worse than the oilsands workers who drove on it. Unlike many energy workers who work maximum 12 hour shifts, “they’re being asked to work 17 days straight, four days off and to do a 17-hour work day. That’s pretty brutal.”