Fatigue in the minerals industry of Western Australia is a greatly under-recognised issue that has serious potential consequences for shift workers at work and at home. A review of fatigue literature demonstrates the elusive nature of fatigue. It is something that most people have probably experienced at some time in their lives. It is a diffuse sensation that is accompanied by feelings of lethargy and a lack of interest in any activity. A general sensation of weariness is a major symptom of fatigue. Fatigue cannot be measured directly and subjective estimates have to be relied upon. Potentially life threatening consequences can result when shift workers perform under the influence of fatigue. Fatigue and sleepiness have the power to kill if not treated with the respect they deserve.
A cross-sectional survey of five underground mines was conducted to obtain a better understanding of their fatigue risk management strategies and the views of managers and shift workers on their sleep and shift schedules. Four mines provided information on their fatigue risk management procedures. Ten underground mining crews comprising 147 shift workers provided their views by an anonymous survey questionnaire administered at each mine at the start of shift. Shift worker sleep at the five mines compared well with mines in Tasmania, New South Wales and Queensland. However, it was found that frequently waking earlier than intended was the most widely reported sleep concern for shift workers on day shift, night shift and days off. Falling asleep while on day shift and on night shift demonstrates that fatigue is an issue that can occur on day shift as well as night shift. Fatigue is not an issue that is confined to night shift.
Mine fitness for work procedures focused primarily on: shift schedules, hours of work and drug and alcohol issues. The level of detail provided on fatigue risk management was considered to be less than adequate when compared with the three previous issues and fatigue risk management documentation sourced from the minerals industry and the transport industry. The survey data and fitness for work procedures provided by four mines suggests that considerably more work needs to be done to recognise and address sleep quantity and quality, as well as sleepiness and fatigue experienced by shift workers while on shift and at home on rest days.
There is a serious need for the Western Australian minerals industry to recognise the vital importance of sleep to shift workers during their shift schedule and rest days. There needs to be a concerted and on-going campaign by the industry to raise and maintain the awareness of sleep as a key element in fitness for duty.