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High-Tech Tactics in Fighting Fatigue

Wednesday, August 1, 2012
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This article accompanies Wake-Up Call

Employee fatigue can be caused by many factors, including sleep apnea. Consider employees who work two jobs or long shifts several days in a row. Regardless of the reason, fatigue can create all sorts of workplace problems: decreased productivity, serious errors in judgment, accidents, and worker injuries or fatalities.

To help HR professionals battle these problems, technology vendors have introduced fatigue-management tools that are attracting some attention. Most offer a scheduling component that tracks employee time and attendance, while others enable employers to observe workers in real time for signs of fatigue.

In June, Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. began piloting EmpCenter Fatigue Management, an application developed by WorkForce Software that can be configured to support specific company rules and ensure compliance with industry requirements.

Supervisors will use the software to schedule employee overtime, says Joe D. Pyner, HR manager in the U.S. manufacturing and industrial relations practice at Houston-based Chevron Phillips. He says a typical refinery or chemical-plant employee works three 12-hour shifts one week and four 12-hour shifts the next week, averaging 42 hours per week. So, over a two-week period, employees work seven out of 14 days, which creates ample opportunities for overtime scheduling.

Employee fatigue grabbed the industry's attention when it was identified as a contributing factor in refinery accidents or explosions, including the 2005 British Petroleum refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas, that killed 15 people. So, in 2010, the American Petroleum Institute established overtime guidelines, referred to as API 755, to help the industry self-regulate and prevent the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration from developing "cumbersome" regulations regarding employee scheduling.

"The scheduling software will allow supervisors in real time to know who can be scheduled for overtime without exceeding the API 755 hours-of-service limits," says Pyner. "We hope to have [the software] up and running and in place by January 2013."

Like petrochemical employees, healthcare workers are also at high risk for fatigue. Three years ago, WellStar Health System started using Kronos Workforce Central software, says Lynn Alters, director of workforce management at WellStar, which employs more than 12,000 people at five hospitals in the Atlanta-metro area.

While the system schedules employees and produces reports regarding their time, attendance and productivity, it also creates customized, daily reports that identify employees in clinical jobs, specifically registered nurses, who may work more than 60 hours in any seven-day period.

"We're starting with nursing as the primary place where [fatigue] can happen . . . and will roll across into other arenas," she says, pointing to other positions such as pharmacists and phlebotomists. Each week, she says, nurses typically work 12-hour shifts for two consecutive days, then skip one or more days before working a third 12-hour shift.

In addition to high-tech tools, WellStar also employs a buddy system. Alters says nurses work in pairs, monitoring and encouraging each other to take a 30-minute uninterrupted lunch break and two 15-minute breaks during their 12-hour shifts.

Driving Results

In recent years, some companies have installed video cameras -- aimed at drivers -- in each of their fleet vehicles. Matthew Kamensky, senior consultant at Towers Watson in Denver, points to a large waste-management company that installed cameras in its trucks linked to a GPS system as part of a pilot program.

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The videos, he says, offer a wealth of information. Are drivers nodding off at the end of their shift? Are some taking short cuts instead of established routes toward the end of the day because they're tired? Do their eyes flutter? If so, when?

"The potential of how [you] can utilize this data is huge," he says, adding that HR can partner with safety or risk management to tackle worker fatigue. "There's some potential to mine some information to get a sense of [whether you] need to change the route or cut the day shorter."

Two years ago, Bill Torres placed a camera offering remote viewing capabilities in each of his 48 charter buses. As president and owner of DC Trails Inc., a charter and tour bus company in Lortin, Va., Torres employs 100 drivers along with 15 office workers who have been trained to spot signs of driver fatigue. As part of their job responsibilities, he says, they watch drivers 24/7 on several monitors placed throughout the office. If a driver starts nodding off, they immediately call the driver four or five consecutive times, which signals him or her to pull over to the side of the road and call the office.

Still, Torres says, technology is only half the solution. He says his business culture encourages, never penalizes, employees to come forward with fatigue-related issues.

A good example is the company's annual, three-day training program. He says several hours are devoted to the side effects of common drugs such as allergy medicine that can cause drowsiness and the importance of developing healthy eating habits and an exercise routine.

Torres credits all of these practices for his company's low insurance rates. Compared to standard industry rates, he pays an estimated 40-percent less for insurance for each bus and employee-healthcare premiums have remained steady over recent years.

"Fatigue is a concern. . . [that's] been around forever," he says. "How you choose to deal with it really makes a difference."

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