Fatigue and distraction management: Improving safety through technology and continuous improvement
For decades, mining companies have recognized that fatigue and distraction are having an impact on their operations. But many don’t know the magnitude of that impact — the risks it imposes and the overall cost to the bottom line.
A new approach is making it possible for mines to finally get the full picture — combining the latest technologies with people and processes to drive zero-incident performance.
Studies have shown that more than 40 percent of employees who work non-daytime hours report nodding off several times per week — or even per shift. Fatigue is considered a leading contributor to 35 to 40 percent of all incidents. By some estimates, shift workers have been conservatively projected to cost companies as much as us$10,000 per employee per year over their traditional daytime counterparts in higher healthcare costs, reduced performance and increased incidents.
But these numbers have never been fully validated and the direct impact of fatigue on operations can be difficult to measure. New information is indicating that the impact may be much greater. Effectively controlling fatigue and distraction may be the biggest single opportunity to reduce serious incidents, injuries and fatalities in mobile fleets. As a result, the rate of adoption of fatigue management programs is quickly accelerating in a number of fields.
As an equipment manufacturer and partner on mine sites around the world, Caterpillar has been involved in the search for — and development of — fatigue-mitigating technologies and processes for many years. The company’s Safety Services organization has made helping customers manage fatigue one of its key focus areas, offering a complete solution that combines technology with consulting services to help customers build and sustain a culture that supports fatigue management.
The effort is led by senior consultant Todd Dawson, who over the past 20 years has become one of the leading experts in developing and implementing comprehensive fatigue risk management systems in large and complex environments. He has played an integral role in shaping the landscape of fatigue management in a number of industries, mixing a strong academic and research background with real-world experience.
Understanding the causes
There are many contributors to fatigue and distraction — long working hours, low lighting, repetitive duties, shift schedules and solitary work environments. All are characteristics of mining operations.
“But it’s not just people who are in shift work operations or those working long hours or night shifts who experience fatigue,” says Dawson. “It exists even in our straight day operations.”
Dawson says the root sources of fatigue fall into three categories: physiological, behavioral and operational.
On a daily basis, all people experience times when they are most alert and times when they are more fatigued. Physiological causes of fatigue include:
- Sleep profile — how much rest is achieved during sleep
- Medical issues — such as sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome
- Time of day — working a shift that falls during a typical sleep time
Behavioral causes of fatigue include:
- Sleep priority
- Activities away from work
“These causes are usually based on the choices that we make as individuals,” says Dawson. “What kind of priority do we put on our sleep? Do we skimp on sleep when we have to do personal things or work overtime? Do we get called in the middle of the night to fix something, or fill in for someone who didn’t show up? We have choices that we make and those obviously influence our fatigue.”
- Time spent on task
- Site policies and procedures
- Workplace design. This includes lighting and colors as well as the outside environment — high heat, high altitude, humidity, etc.
“When we talk about operational issues, we’re looking at the schedules and rosters,” explains Dawson. “Do we provide enough opportunity in our shift schedule to give people time to get good sleep? Do we look at job tasks and vary monotonous tasks? Do we look at policies and procedures, putting limits on the number of hours that people can work or the number of days they can work in a row?”
Cultural differences also need to be considered. In North America, workers are accustomed to sleeping in a single-family home, in their own beds. In other cultures, operators may share a home with a large extended family, which makes it difficult to rest. In remote locations, workers may be on a bus for several hours before their shift begins, which contributes to fatigue.
“We need to appreciate where everyone is coming from,” says Caterpillar Global Mining Safety Solutions Manager David Edwards, PhD, an expert in Human Factors and researcher in operator fatigue. “We must take into account the workforce’s unique challenges and build a fatigue management solution that fits their circumstances.”
Recognizing the consequences
Fatigued operators can lose the cognitive ability to react safely to changes in their environment, and the consequences can be disastrous — from injuries to loss of life. “These obvious consequences are top of mind and receive the most focus,” says Dawson. “These ‘big ticket items’ are serious and very important — but perhaps are not as prevalent as some others.”
It’s the symptoms that occur on a daily basis that can have the most significant impact on an operation, he says. For example:
- Increases in absenteeism. “This may seem like a small thing, but when you look at the percentages there is a definite impact on the bottom line. If people are taking days off because they are ‘sick and tired,’ then that starts to become an issue.”
- Losses in productivity
- Equipment losses due to abuse or damage
- Property damage
- Higher fuel usage
- Overall health of the workforce, which can influence productivity as well as health care and workers’ compensation costs
“Any one of these consequences can result in a challenging scenario for employees — and a significant financial risk for the operation,” says Dawson.
Managing the situation
There are few, if any, mine sites in the world that don’t recognize that operator fatigue and distraction are issues that need to be addressed. Over the past decades they have tried to manage the situation through policies and procedures, and through various education, training, scheduling, diet and motivational efforts.
“Sites have focused on scheduling and roster solutions, ensuring that they have the right schedule to fit the amount of work that has to be done with the staffing levels that they have,” says Dawson. “A lot of good work has been done providing education and awareness programs for operators and employees.”
Ultimately, though, it is often left up to the individual operators to manage their own fatigue. While many shift workers are well-trained and highly skilled, most have never been trained in how to deal with fatigue, manage their sleep schedule or adapt to the social and physical challenges that come with shift work.
“The way that translates a lot of times is to drink more caffeine, have another cup of coffee, and suck it up,” says Dawson. “That can work to a certain extent. There is a bit of strength in the mind that can get through certain times of fatigue. But the reality is that once certain levels of fatigue begin to set in, it’s difficult for us to overcome those.”
While Dawson gives credit to operators who are aware of and try to manage the problem, it’s very difficult for an operator to address his or her own fatigue. “We lose track of what it feels like to be fully alert and so that frame of reference starts to go away. So if you ask anybody at any given moment how they feel, most of the time they will say they are fine. We lose our ability to self-measure and identify how fatigued we are. And that increases our risk.”
Finding a comprehensive solution
Throughout their decades-long research into fatigue management solutions, Caterpillar experts have come to the realization that there is no single solution to the problem.
Edwards predicted this outcome nearly 10 years ago. “There are some things you cannot change,” he said in 2007. “No matter how much you do, you can’t prevent it from happening. The best thing you can hope for is to manage and mitigate the risk.”
But saying that there is no single solution doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to manage the situation. It just takes a combination of tools, technologies, processes and culture changes — a complete system.
“What we’re recommending as a solution, and what we are now able to offer to our customers, is a complete Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS),” says Edwards. FRMS incorporates technology to predict, measure and mitigate fatigue events, and provides operators with the knowledge and tools to improve their alertness. Through this combination of technology, people, processes and systems — along with comprehensive monitoring and analysis capabilities — FRMS can reliably reduce the risk of operator fatigue.
Dawson explains that while the FRMS approach has been around for quite some time, it has gone through an evolution that is now making it a robust answer to this important challenge.
“There were periods of time when a lot of people had a fatigue management plan or alertness assurance programs,” says Dawson. “And they often were very well-written, excellent documents that were very comprehensive. But one of the things they lacked was a process that allowed for continuous improvement. The program would be implemented, the book that governed it was put on the shelf and it collected dust. And so there was this initial ‘put a Band-Aid on it’ approach. But what we know now is that it is continuous improvement that makes a robust and strong fatigue management system.”
Caterpillar’s FRMS is a holistic approach to managing fatigue that is part of a continuous process, Dawson explains. “You engage, you assess the current state, you define, develop, implement and check. Did we have a positive impact? Do we need to make changes? Do we need to address some other issues? And that process continues to go around.”
Taking advantage of technology
New and existing technologies are changing the way fatigue can be managed. Caterpillar has spent decades investigating the right technology solutions. There are caps that measure brain waves, glasses that have tiny cameras inside, and in-cab technologies that measure eye movement and driving habits.
“The reality is, technology can take a lot of forms,” says Dawson. “Some of them are designed to deal with the physiological challenges. Others help to educate and create awareness around behavioral challenges. Others still are focused more on the operational side, so they live and exist within the operation itself. All of those together form kind of a band around our fatigue challenge and, depending on what our problems are, we have to decide which of these technologies fit best.”
In addition to those technologies that have a direct impact on the challenges, another type of technology that can have a significant impact are the systems or databases that help sites identify, track and assess trends in their fatigue metrics.
“These kinds of databases and technologies, whether they’re in the Cloud or on site, are what help us as part of that continuous improvement,” says Dawson. “It’s important to use the data that comes out of a wearable technology or an in-cab technology.”
Selecting a technology partner
A partnership with a leading fatigue management technology company — Seeing Machines — has helped Caterpillar in the growth of its complete FRMS. While there are several technologies that are used in a holistic system, the key technology component Caterpillar offers is the Driver Safety System (DSS).
The DSS machine technology uses infrared cameras and sensors to detect facial features and, more specifically, characteristics of the eyes. The system continuously measures operator eye and eyelid behavior to determine the onset of fatigue and microsleeps and delivers real-time detection and alerts.
One of the differentiators between the DSS and other technologies available is that there is no need for the driver to physically interact with the system. The driver does not have to wear glasses or a hat, and automatic initialization and calibration of the dash-mounted camera requires no input from the operator. In a sense, the system is transparent to the operator.
The DSS looks for two things: distraction and fatigue. Distraction events are times when an operator is looking away from the task at hand — using a cell phone, reading, glancing out the window. “These are long glances away,” says Dawson. “The system is intelligent enough to identify a glance that we want, such as a mirror check or a check for obstructions, compared to someone who is looking down at a cell phone and texting while driving.”
Fatigue-related events are times when the camera actually picks up eye closures. It has the intelligence to tell the difference between a long blink and a fatigue-related event.
There are usually three steps to the full implementation of the DSS:
- Creating a baseline. “We’re trying to get a picture or a sense of what is going on in the operation today,” says Dawson. “We want a sense of how big the problem is, how many of these events we are having. And we do that without any intervention with the operator.”
- Enabling alarms. Once the baseline is developed, alarms are turned on in the cab. “These can be a combination of a rumble in the seat, voice commands or alarms that can go off,” he explains. “They’re not designed to startle or to scare a person awake, but to notify and let them know that something is going on that may need some attention.” The operator is not the only person to receive a notification of an event. At the same time, the DSS is collecting data and reporting back to a central location, often a dispatch center.
- Intervening. The next phase is an intervention that takes place as a result of the alarms. Sites that implement the DSS will have a fatigue management plan in place to dictate how interventions will be handled. If a fatigue-related event is detected, what does the operator do? What does the supervisor do? At what point does a supervisor talk to the operator?
“At some point there has to be an intervention, especially if there are multiple fatigue events throughout the course of a shift,” says Dawson. “The supervisor can look for alternatives and determine if that person should be relieved of their duties, or if they can be brought back to a state where they are not experiencing those fatigue-related or distraction events.”
The use of the DSS, initially designed for the transportation industry, is growing rapidly in the mining industry. The system has been installed in more than 5,000 haul trucks and has more than 8 million hours of operation on mine sites.
One of the first — and most important — outcomes of a FRMS is awareness. Leveraging technologies like the DSS gives management and operators what may be their first real look into the significance of fatigue and how important it is that they take responsibility for mitigating it.
At the management level, the collection of data allows leaders to see the risks of fatigue and distraction — where they are, what they are, the scale, and the potential benefits that can be realized by managing them.
At the same time, the drivers themselves start to recognize their own fatigue and the impact it can have. “Without some kind of an objective measurement, it’s very difficult for any of us to identify how much at risk we are for falling asleep,” says Dawson. “Often, in our own frame of reference, we know we’re tired but we tell ourselves that we’re OK. One of the benefits of these technologies, like the DSS, is that we start to recognize as individuals what our behaviors are, and what impact our choices outside of work have on our day-to-day operations within a mine site.”
The data also makes it possible to determine those times of excessive drowsiness that don’t result in an incident or accident. This data can be used to identify when people are most at risk, or if there are specific areas within the operation that lend themselves to times of fatigue or distraction. “Is there a particular part of the haul road where we’re just grinding away at 8 miles per hour, and the monotony starts to set in? These technologies see those times, and we’re able to predict when fatigue might become an issue,” Dawson says. “So we can identify times and places or types of work that are at higher risk without an event actually occurring. This allows us to put programs in place that really meet the needs of what the site-specific operation is.”
Covering multiple layers
The results that mine sites have seen with the implementation of the DSS are promising, says Edwards. But the technology itself cannot be solely responsible for improved safety.
Dawson describes a complete fatigue management system as having multiple layers of protection, reducing the risk that a hazard can pass through all of the layers. DSS technology is just one of these layers. Other important elements include:
- Leadership support
- Defined protocols
- Training and education for drivers
- How to manage sleep
- How to maintain alertness
- How to eat healthy and have a healthy lifestyle
- Understanding medical challenges that may cause fatigue
“When these pieces are in place, it’s not uncommon to see a 90 percent reduction or higher in fatigue-related events and similarly positive numbers in the distraction events,” says Dawson.
Changing a culture
As operators become more aware of their own behaviors, sites can begin to see a change in the way they think about fatigue and how to manage it. They keep track of their activities away from work in order to have fewer fatigue- or distraction-related events captured by the DSS.
Dawson shares this example: “We know that seven hours of sleep is what most people need to feel alert and well-rested. And we find that people working a night shift will get on average around five. A typical discussion around the coffee pot in the break room revolves around sleep — not how much operators get, but how little. In some cases it’s considered a bit of a badge of honor to say, ‘I’m tough. I only got three hours and here I am, ready to work.’ As the DSS data builds awareness and the culture begins to change, operators are more proud to say they got seven hours of sleep.”
By combining technologies like the DSS with other Caterpillar fatigue management services, sites can start to affect a change in behaviors at work, and also start to influence and have positive impact on behavior away from work. Operators begin to focus on their fitness for duty and make better choices about what to eat and how much sleep they need.
“No longer does fitness for duty mean stopping for 32 ounces of coffee on the way into work,” says Dawson. “The focus starts to be more on sleep quantity — and sleep quality. Typically we focus on how much sleep we got; sometimes the better question is ‘How good was your sleep?’”
Overcoming opposition and managing change
While state-of-the-art technologies, defined processes and protocols go a long way in helping sites manage fatigue and distraction, without the buy-in from everyone in the organization, the full benefits of a FRMS cannot be realized.
“My experience over these many years has shown me that those technologies that have some kind of a support or implementation change process are the ones that succeed,” says Dawson. “Many of the technologies that are available today do exactly what they’re supposed to do. They’ve been scientifically validated, they’ve worked well in field studies, they’re robust, they’re rugged, they can stand up to the wear and tear on even our heaviest sites. But without a change management process, you tend to find that the technology doesn’t work so well.”
Support at a management level is key. “There has to be clear ownership and leadership support for the process,” Dawson continues. “There’s the day-to-day management of the data. What do I do if I have a fatigue-related event? Those activities all need to be spelled out and handled, and a clear message sent to all layers of an operational site on what the path forward will be and how a situation will be handled. Without that, the risk of failure increases significantly.”
Dawson says that from a site leadership role, there must be some type of outward-facing, visible sign that FRMS is being supported; however, equally important are the less visible signs. “There are a lot of ways that leadership at a higher level can influence and show their support, not the least of which is financial, providing funding for the types of programs and activities that you really need to have as part of a healthy fatigue risk management system.”
Over the past 20 years, Dawson has learned that support from site leadership and direct supervisors goes a long way to helping sites overcome the initial resistance from operators who may be uncomfortable with having their in-cab movements so closely monitored.
“If an operator shows up for a shift and suddenly there’s a camera in his cab, that typically doesn’t go over well,” says Dawson. “But in places where we have been able to make the end user aware of the goal, and how it benefits him or her, that’s where we have success.”
End users want to know what is being measured, what supervisors are viewing, what will be reported — and how it will be acted upon.
It is essential that leaders support operators in their fatigue management efforts. “We’ve found that a disciplinary approach typically doesn’t have the desired results,” says Dawson. “It leads to under-reporting or non-reporting of incidents, events and near misses. And it also doesn’t solve the inherent problem, which is the operator is fatigued.”
“The reason we’re implementing technology is for their personal safety and to help them manage this situation. Think back to those moments when you’ve experienced fatigue. It’s terribly frustrating. You’re fighting and struggling just to stay awake. And this allows us to give them a kind of safety net that can help keep them awake and alert them when they are starting to experience fatigue. It’s a non-disciplinary support mechanism to help them through those difficult times.”
Dawson stresses that while the DSS can serve as a safety net, it’s not meant to replace the other activities that are part of a fatigue risk management system. “People can’t just go out and stay up all night and plan on the system waking them up,” he says. “That’s not the intent. That’s why we consider this technology a part of a broader system where people are making good choices away from work. The technology is a last line of defense within the cab.”