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Determining the risk of operator fatigue: 5 essential questions

Today’s mining companies know that operator fatigue and distraction can impact safety, productivity and efficiency. Fortunately, the continued advancement of technologies and risk management systems is allowing miners to see, mitigate and manage this once-invisible threat.

The experts at Caterpillar Safety Services help miners determine their scope of risk so they can build a complete fatigue risk management system. They build these solutions around five essential questions:

  1. Are employees getting sufficient quality and quantity of sleep?

    The only real solution to fatigue is sleep, explains fatigue expert Mitch Cowart, a member of the Caterpillar Safety Services technology team. “But we need more, better sleep. We need both quality and quantity. It’s sleep that allows the brain’s memory processing systems to rebound.”

    Prior to the advent of technologies, it was difficult to know the answer to this question. Putting operators through sleep studies called polysomnography was never a practical solution for mining organizations. But new products like the Cat® Smart Band make it easier to determine both the quantity and quality of sleep.

    “The durable wrist-worn device unobtrusively collects activity data and uses sophisticated algorithms to convert that activity data to data that is 93 percent as accurate as compared to polysomnography,” says Cowart. The band collects the length of sleep, the quality of the sleep, effectiveness levels, alertness and performance.

smart band

  1. Do employees have sufficient opportunities to get sleep?

    Most mining companies will find that their operators are not getting the quality and quantity of sleep necessary for optimum safety and performance, Cowart said. Once that has been determined, the next step is looking for ways to make better sleep possible.

    Cowart recommends a software like Caterpillar’s FAST — Fatigue Avoidance Scheduling Tool. This analysis tool allows mines to model fatigue risk and quantify it for operations. “We look at data like overtime, work history, shift schedules, rotation data and absenteeism data,” he says. “We use FAST to analyze work schedules, travel periods, accident reports, and we help managers schedule workers for increased safety and performance.”

    The tool can also be used to make predictions based on assumptions or real data from products like the Smart Band. Cowart says the tool can be used to ask important “what if” questions, like “What if our worker was able to start day just one hour later?” and “What if he could get one more hour of sleep per night?” Companies can use the answers to these questions to predict how these changes will impact the fatigue risk at their sites.

  2. Do we have sufficient controls to mitigate fatigue risk?

    Cowart stresses that no matter the answer to questions one and two, fatigue will happen. “It’s a force of nature, like gravity. Even after all we do to ensure they’re getting more, better sleep, it still happens. And that leads us to question three.”

    Fortunately, there are technologies that can help control and mitigate the risk of fatigue. The Cat Driver Safety System, for example, is a non-intrusive, in-cab fatigue detection technology that can instantly alert operators the moment fatigue or distraction is identified. It works by monitoring eye-closure duration and head pose.

    “The system uses two layers of intelligence,” explains Cowart. “There is artificial intelligence in the cab, and the second layer is real intelligence — the safety advisor stationed in our 24-hour monitoring center.”

    Safety advisors observe video clips and use other information collected from the system to know the travel speed, the direction of travel, if there was a sudden skid or abrupt steering. “We can combine all this data and make a determination of the level of risk that your organization is facing,” Cowart says. “And when they discover a real threat, they can initiate an intervention plan that includes texting, emailing or phoning a dispatcher or a supervisor to warn them.”

  3. How are cultural stigmas around fatigue and sleep driving behaviors that frustrate our journey to zero?

    Even with all the data that points to operator fatigue and distraction as major threats to safety and productivity, there are still organizational cultures that inadvertently promote at-risk behavior. “People believe that they’re a better operator, or they think that they’re a little bit more high-performing and can afford to take the risk,” says Cowart. “It’s those beliefs and attitudes and ideas that cause at-risk behavior.”

    In addition, in some cultures the need for sleep is perceived as weakness, which may cause operators to take on an at-risk behavior to avoid the perception of being weak.

    “It’s the cultural norms combined with our individual attitudes and beliefs that make up the culture,” says Cowart. “And it’s culture that’s really at the root of all of our accidents. It’s also at the root of all our layers of protection. An effective Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS) has multiple layers of protection. And it’s culture that forms the design, development and implementation — and ultimately the effectiveness — of all the other layers.”

  4. Do we have a process to effectively manage the journey to zero?

    Cowart stresses that a Fatigue Risk Management System must follow defined processes in order to succeed. A Caterpillar FRMS solution will follow these steps:

    • Engage leadership
    • Assess risk
    • Define a framework for the route to zero
    • Develop layers of protection
    • Implement the layers of protection
    • Evaluate progress

    “A well-implemented system results in optimal operational health, including increased productivity, reduced cost, improved employee relationships and overall alignment to culture and values,” Cowart says. “Embedded in the process is a change management methodology that helps your organization engage and maximize results.”

    “Hardworking people want real layers of protection, facilitated by leaders who understand that fatigue is not the same as weakness, not the same as laziness, not a character flaw,” he says. “It’s natural, a force of nature, and managing it requires the power to see, to mitigate this risk, and the power to manage it.”

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