Fatigue the major accident risk factor in construction

1 February 2010

Fatigue is the number one accident risk factor for construction workers and requires better recognition by occupational health and safety managers, research at the University of Sydney has found.

Dr Margaret Chan's PhD research focused on four high profile oil and gas Sino joint-venture construction projects in Mainland China, where she interviewed workers, managers and safety supervisors to establish perceived causes of workplace accidents. All three groups considered fatigue to be the most significant risk factor in workplace accidents at these sites.

Dr Chan's research is the first to identify fatigue as the leading risk factor in a construction environment. Other factors identified were mental stress, failure to follow safety procedures, lack of knowledge, failure to use proper equipment, and fire and explosion.

"My research shows previously identified factors like failure to use equipment or failure by individual workers to follow safety procedures are heavily influenced by fatigue. If you eliminate fatigue, you also eliminate other so-called 'causes' of accidents. Previous research shows fatigue can cause performance impairment equivalent to - or greater than 0.10% - of blood alcohol concentration, a level deemed unacceptable for driving a crane or operating dangerous construction equipment or machinery."

Although her work was based in China, Dr Chan, from the Schoolof Civil Engineering at the University's Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies, believes the findings are equally applicable in Australia.

"It's well known Australia has more stringent OH&S regulations than China but these do not address fatigue, particularly in construction," she says.

"Australian construction companies - based locally or overseas - need to place greater emphasis on the importance of recovery, a significant moderator of fatigue. Managers should ensure workers take regular breaks from work, and schedule shift rosters to allow the body to adapt to the circadian rhythm. They should also provide facilities allowing workers to recover from the fatigue and stress that comes with working in a high-risk environment.

"Workers at construction projects are predominantly multi-cultured migrants who worked an average of more than 60 hours a week. Based on my findings, I believe that it is imperative managing contractors of these projects provide recreation facilities to help workers recover from fatigue and mental stress, reducing the risk of accidents at construction sites."

"At the management level, safety officers should factor fatigue and stress into their regular OH&S audits and consider them when investigating accidents. Furthermore, workers at risk should be screened for fatigue at regular intervals."