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June 09, 2021
NIOSH fatigue research center marks first anniversary

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is marking the first anniversary of its Center for Work and Fatigue Research (CWFR). The center pursues NIOSH’s long-standing interest in the workplace health and safety effects of nonstandard work hours, such as long hours and shiftwork.

Fatigue costs employers an estimated $136 billion a year in lost productivity, according to the National Safety Council (NSC). Fatigue contributes to absenteeism, poor productivity on the job, and workplace accidents and injuries. Worker fatigue also may have been a factor in both the 1979 nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island and the 1989 grounding of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker, NIOSH says.

NIOSH established the CWFR because research indicates that almost 40 million American workers (nearly 30 percent of the American workforce) have schedules outside of a “regular daytime shift,” and over 30 million workers (1 in 4 workers) work more than 40 hours per week. In addition to researching the effects of disrupted or shortened sleep on workplace safety and health, the CWFR also explores other possible sources of fatigue, such as mentally and physically demanding work, co-morbidities, hot environments, and other co-exposures.

The CWFR offers online training for commercial pilots—the Department of Transportation identified pilot fatigue as a top priority following the December 21, 2011, crash of Colgan Air flight 3407—and emergency responders and nurses who must manage both long hours and shiftwork.

The CWFR’s current research projects include:

  • A study of the effectiveness of NIOSH’s online training for nurses on shiftwork and long work hours and on registered nurses’ sleep health and well-being;
  • Attempts to identify sources of fatigue among oil and gas extraction drivers (motor vehicle fatality rates in the oil and gas extraction industry are 8.5 times higher than other industries) and to determine the effectiveness of fatigue-detection devices to reduce the risk of fatigue; and
  • Evaluating the cost benefits and effectiveness of the North American Fatigue Management Program for commercial motor vehicle drivers.

NIOSH researchers also surveyed long-haul truck drivers to determine national estimates of work-related health and safety conditions and identified a need to focus on work-related health conditions to prevent injury and illness and improve overall driver health. Researchers so far have published five papers based on the survey results and expect to produce more.

The CWFR also has collected resources for employers and workers addressing issues of work schedules, sleep, and fatigue. NIOSH’s resources focus on issues affecting all workers, like driver fatigue, overtime, and shiftwork, as well as concerns in specific industries like emergency response, health care, and social assistance; oil and gas extraction; transportation, warehousing, and utilities; and the retail and wholesale trades.

NIOSH officials recently summarized “lessons learned” and mitigation strategies utilized to address essential worker fatigue during the COVID-19 pandemic. Early in the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offered a fact sheet for employers and workers for managing worker fatigue during COVID-19.

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