Fatigue, the invisible foe in the workplace

Fatigue, the invisible foe in the workplace

Author: Tania van Staden – Attorney specialising in Health and Safety Legal Compliance
T&T Estate Compliance Specialists

A tragic accident recently occurred at an estate during the early hours of the morning that resulted in a fatality – presumably during a security guard shift changeover. The events that led up to the accident have not yet been established.  Whenever an accident occurs, it is crucial to go back to the drawing board and to review one’s risk assessments, mitigating controls, resources, training and information to prevent a repeat accident.

Security forms a fundamental part of an Estate and is often the main motive for people resorting to estate living. It is common practice that security staff work extended hours in the form of shift work which includes night work. Fatigue is a direct cause of shift work.

It has been found that the number of accidents in the workplace involving contract workers including service providers such as Security Services, is twice as much as those of permanent employees. It appears that employers are under the misconception that their duty to ensure the occupational health and safety of contract workers, is subcontracted with the outsourced services.  This is not the case.

Section 8 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) places a duty on employers to provide and maintain, as far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risk to the health and safety of its employees.  Section 9 extends this duty of employers to persons other than those employed, such as visitors, contractors and service providers.  The employer must identify hazards and risks that could affect the health and safety of employees as well as contractors with regard to a specific area/process/activity and must implement measures to eliminate or mitigate such hazards or risks.  Risks identified must be linked to applicable legislation to ensure that where minimum requirements are stipulated by law, that said requirements are adhered to.

Occupational accidents are mostly caused by preventable factors, such as fatigue, which could be eliminated by implementing measures and methods that are already known and available.  Fatigue is an invisible foe that is often overlooked when considering hazards/risks in the workplace.

The Minister of Labour has issued a Code of Good Practice (COP) on the Arrangement of Working Time in terms of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.  This COP is of particular significance for employers and employees who perform shift work or regular night work and it reiterates the obligation on employers in terms of the OHSA.

In terms of the said legislation, Employers must:

  • Conduct a risk assessment. This requires that they identify hazards and assess the risk that they pose to the health and safety of employees. The results of the risk assessment must be recorded.
  • Implement appropriate measures to eliminate or control hazards identified in the risk assessment.
  • Train and supply information to employees about the risks to their health and safety and the measures taken to control such risks.


Employers who engage employees to perform regular night work must ensure that these employees are informed of the health and safety hazards associated with the work that they would perform.

Training and information regarding fatigue management would typically include the signs of fatigue and how to cope with fatigue.

There are five recognised fatigue indicators that are likely to impair the human cognitive performance. These indicators are the amount of sleep in the last 24 hours, increasing sleep debt, hours awake since the last major sleep period, time of day on the body clock, and amount of “shift lag”.

The effects of fatigue may include:

  • Impaired judgment
  • Lack of attentiveness
  • Slow reaction time
  • Increased likelihood of falling asleep at the tasks

Strategies that will assist employees to cope with shift work and night work include –

  • awareness of the signs of fatigue;
  • maintaining a regular sleeping routine;
  • taking steps to block out noise and light for employees who must sleep during the day;
  • maintaining a healthy diet;
  • exercise and relaxation.


Injuries on duty and occupational diseases as a result of poor health and safety management can be very costly and can result in many serious direct and indirect consequences on the lives of workers, their families and the financial status of an employer. These consequences can be prevented and managed by a successfully implemented health and safety management system which will ensure legal compliance. T&T Estate Compliance Specialists will assist your estate in attaining legal compliance, protecting and improving the estate’s image and governance while reducing potential legal costs and risks.

An employee is regularly working at night if he or she works not than one shift per week (or 50 shifts per year) of which more than one hour falls after 23:00 or before 06:00

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