What Is Fatigue Identification Software and Is It Ready for Implementation?

By: | August 3, 2020

Kevin Lombardo is the president and chief executive officer of DORN Companies. DORN has been keeping people out of the healthcare and workers compensation systems through its onsite therapy, education, ergonomic and technology solutions. Kevin leads the strategy development of DORN and oversees focus on developing innovative solutions for pain mitigation, with an emphasis on reducing organizations’ future costs with evidence based, result-oriented programs. He can be reached at [email protected]

Fatigue is among the most prevalent workplace challenges faced by safety professionals and risk managers, affecting millions of workers across industries. More than a simple feeling of drowsiness, fatigue is the cumulative result of poor or insufficient sleep over an extended period of time and can undermine productivity and lead to significant injury risk.

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The mental and physical exhaustion that come with fatigue generally results from stress, high levels of exertion, consecutive shift work, and life circumstances that prevent workers from getting adequate restorative sleep.

People generally need at least seven hours of quality sleep per night, but only about two-third of us actually get that much rest on a regular basis, according to 2016 data from the Centers for Disease Control.

With so many people experiencing the effects of fatigue, employers have begun to look to technology to help them manage the problem and prevent fatigue from turning into costly injuries or accidents. Now, fatigue identification software is making serious headway as a viable fatigue management solution.

So how does it work, and can we rely on it to keep employees safe?

The Fatigue Problem in 2020

Fatigue has been plaguing American workplaces for decades — you have only to look to infamous accidents such as the power plant meltdown at Chernobyl and the spill of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker for proof.

Recent years have brought much greater attention to the issue, however, spurring innovation in fatigue research and management. Data collected and published by the National Safety Council indicates that fatigue is pervasive, affecting some 43% of American workers and costing employers over $136 billion per year in lost productivity alone.

“Information is power, so knowing when, where, and how fatigue impacts worker safety is critical. You can’t identify solutions until you pinpoint the problems.” –  Dr. Lora Cavuoto, Fatigue Researcher at SUNY – University at Buffalo

That comes out to a per-worker cost of nearly $3,100 per year, stemming just from insufficient rest and continued accumulation of sleep debt.

In 2020, the myriad stressors of life can only exacerbate workplace fatigue — with many businesses shutting down for extended periods and now trying to catch up with their annual goals, many workers are now facing longer shifts with higher productivity expectations. Add in the changes we’ve all experienced in regular life — social distancing, illness risks, increased stress — and it’s easy to see how circumstances can contribute to a highly common problem like fatigue.

Life has changed for many workers, and change implies its own stressors. Too often, when stress turns into fatigue, accidents occur.

The Risks of Fatigue

Fatigued workers display a host of symptoms and behaviors that stem from a lack of quality sleep. Fatigue makes it difficult to concentrate, and many workers experience reduced coordination and fine motor skills when chronically tired. It affects judgment and emotional regulation, and even contributes to serious long-term health problems including heart disease, hypertension and depression or anxiety.

As a result, it’s extremely dangerous to have fatigued employees at work.

Fatigue affects people in a way similar to inebriation. Staying awake for just 17 hours, which may seem routine to many Americans, is roughly equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.05. Just three hours more doubles the effects. It’s no wonder that nearly 70% of workplace accidents involve fatigue at a critical point.

For some workers, fatigue is almost inevitable. Truck drivers are especially vulnerable to fatigue due to long hours, while employees in manufacturing or mining often work several consecutive night shifts per week — not forgetting the exhausting nature of their work.

Medical professionals in intensive care units experience fatigue at high rates as well, a fact that has sadly become common knowledge in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. For instance, doctors and nurses who work extended shifts are significantly more likely to be involved in vehicle accidents in their commute to or from work.

Fatigue Identification Software

In response to the prevailing fatigue issue affecting workplace safety, safety innovators have developed a range of tech-based tools that help managers identify fatigue in workers before the risk turns into an incident. Here are two fatigue identification software applications that are making waves in fatigue management across the most affected industries:

  • AlertMeter: Designed to capture alertness information at critical moments of an employee’s shift, AlertMeter identifies fatigue through a one-minute cognitive test that workers take on smartphones or tablets. Taken before or during a shift or before performing a critical task, AlertMeter delivers real-time fatigue data to safety managers, allowing for continuous monitoring of alertness levels and giving managers the chance to remove fatigued employees from the floor. AlertMeter has demonstrated global success in the mining industry, and is also frequently used in manufacturing.
  • Intel Driver Recognition and Fatigue Detection: Specifically geared toward tackling fatigue in the transportation and shipping industries, Intel’s fatigue management technology incorporates facial recognition systems to detect signs of fatigued driving. When triggered, the system alerts the driver and suggests a break or rest period, also sending information to management for continuous monitoring.

Is Fatigue Identification Software Ready for Implementation? Caterpillar Thinks So.

The use of heavy equipment represents a serious risk when fatigue is part of the equation.

That’s why Caterpillar, manufacturer of much of America’s construction equipment — loaders, lifters, and haulers —decided to implement a facial fatigue detection solution that would help eliminate fatigue-related accidents.

Caterpillar vehicles — some of which are large enough to boast tires more than 12 feet tall — are often used at mining operations, which generally run 24-hours a day and require many employees to work overnight, when the risk of fatigue is greatest.

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Using small cameras placed on the dash of their larger vehicles, Caterpillar introduced a fatigue detection system that scans for predetermined fatigue flags like lowered head position and drooping eyelids.

When the system detects a sign of fatigue in the vehicle operator, Caterpillar’s central fatigue center is notified, along with the site supervisor and the driver. At this point, the manager can direct the operator to take a sleep break, preventing any possible vehicle incidents stemming from loss of alertness.

Caterpillar implemented their camera-based driver fatigue detection system in conjunction with robust fatigue monitoring and data tracking software at a major mining operation in Africa. The resulting cost savings from reduced fatigue-related accidents amounted to over $2.4 million.

With so many businesses now searching for ways to curb fatigue, especially in high-risk industries such as mining, manufacturing and transportation, it’s no wonder that so many different fatigue management technologies have surfaced in recent years. Though the technology is relatively young, it’s already being adopted by major enterprises in these sectors and beyond, and delivering positive results.

It’s only a matter of time before these solutions become standard procedure in workplaces everywhere. &

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]