The 10 Signs of Worker Fatigue

A frontline worker is tired at an industrial manufacturing facility.

Worker fatigue increases the risk for injury and deteriorating health (infections, illnesses and mental health disorders).

Long work hours and irregular work shifts are common in our society. Many workers around the world spend over 40 hours a week at work, and hundreds of millions of people work full time on evening, night, rotating or other irregular shifts. Work schedules like these may cause workplace fatigue.

Shift workers may have to work days, evenings, nights and/or on a rotating or on-call basis. They may work extended shifts (more than 8 hours long), rotating or irregular shifts or consecutive shifts resulting in far more hours than the typical 40-hour work week. Long work hours and the associated fatigue can increase the risk of injuries and accidents and can contribute to poor overall health. Studies show that long work hours can result in increased levels of stress, poor eating habits, lack of physical activity and illness. It is important to recognize the symptoms of worker fatigue and its potential impact on each worker’s safety and health and on the safety of co-workers.

No Single Definition of Worker Fatigue

In occupational health and safety, there is no single definition of worker fatigue.

Fatigue is the state of feeling very tired, weary or sleepy resulting from various sources such as insufficient sleep, prolonged mental or physical work or extended periods of stress or anxiety. Boring or repetitive tasks can intensify feelings of worker fatigue. Fatigue can either be acute or chronic.

There are several signs or symptoms of fatigue, and they can include mental, physical or subjective states. If you notice any of these signs, you likely are suffering from fatigue. It could be acute – a “one-off” related to workplace or home stress or a pressing deadline or project – or chronic, which means that you likely are suffering from a sleep disorder, prolonged periods of work and extended periods of stress.

Mental state:
1. Reduced mental capacity
2. Inattentive

Physical state:
4. Physiological weakness or degradation
5. Physically exhausted
6. Weak

Subjective state:
7. Tired
8. Drowsy or sleepy
9. Weary
10. Irritable

While there is no one solution to fit everyone’s needs, here are some general strategies that workers and employers can use to manage workplace fatigue and work safely.

Fighting Fatigue: Tips for Workers

Tips to Improve Sleep:

  • You’ll sleep better if your room is comfortable, dark, cool and quiet.
  • If it takes you longer than 15 minutes to fall asleep, set aside some time before bedtime to do things to help you relax. Try meditating, relaxation breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Before you begin working a long stretch of shifts, try “banking your sleep”—sleeping several extra hours longer than you normally do.
  • After you’ve worked a long stretch of shifts, remember it may take several days of extended sleep (for example, 10 hours in bed) before you begin to feel recovered. Give yourself time to recover.
  • Avoid sunlight or bright lights 90 minutes before you go to sleep, when possible. Exposure to light just before bedtime can cause you to feel more awake.
  • If you work a night shift and drive home during sunlight hours, try wearing sunglasses to reduce your exposure to sunlight during your drive home.
  • Consider using blackout shades at home when sleeping.
  • Take naps when you have the opportunity.
  • A 90-minute nap before working a night shift can help prevent you from feeling tired at work.

Food and Fatigue:

  • Eat healthy foods and stay physically active because it can improve your sleep.
  • Before you go to sleep, avoid foods and drinks that can make falling asleep more difficult:
  • Avoid alcohol, heavy meals and nicotine for at least 2–3 hours before bedtime.
  • Don’t drink caffeine within 5 hours of bedtime.

Fatigue on the Job:

  • Know what to do if you feel too tired to work safely.
  • Use a buddy system while you’re at work. Check in with each other to ensure everyone is coping with work hours and demands.
  • Watch yourself and your coworkers for signs of fatigue—like yawning, difficulty keeping your eyes open and difficulty concentrating. When you see something, say something to your coworkers so you can prevent workplace injuries and errors.
  • Find out if your employer has a formal program to help you manage fatigue on the job. Read information about the program and ask questions so you fully understand your employer’s policies and procedures for helping employees manage fatigue.


  • Report any fatigue-related events or close-calls to a manager to help prevent injuries and errors.
  • Do not work if your fatigue threatens the safety of yourself or others. Report to a manager when you feel too tired to work safely.
Download the Intelex Insight Report, ISO 45001: How to Keep Your Workers and Business Safe

Fighting Fatigue: Tips for Employers

What steps should employers take to reduce workplace fatigue for workers? Here are a few ideas.

Safety Culture:

  • Create a culture of safety with clear coordination and communication between management and workers. This can include establishing a Fatigue Risk Management Plan or strategies for fatigue mitigation on the job. Share and ensure that employees understand the processes.
  • Spot the signs and symptoms of fatigue (e.g., yawning, difficulty keeping eyes open, inability to concentrate) in employees and take steps to mitigate fatigue-related injury or error.
  • Create a procedure that does not punish workers for reporting when they, or their coworkers, are too tired to work safely. Build it into team comradery as an example of how management and staff can support each other.

Work Procedures and Processes:

  • Develop processes to relieve a worker from their duties if they are too tired to work safely.
  • If available, and agreeable with workers, consider assigning workers who are just starting their shifts onto safety-critical tasks.
  • If possible, rotate workers or groups of workers through tasks that are repetitive and/or strenuous.
  • If possible, schedule physically and mentally demanding workloads and monotonous work in shorter shifts and/or during day shifts.
  • Provide information for workers on the consequences of sleep deprivation and resources to assist workers managing fatigue.


  • Allow staff enough time to organize their off-duty obligations and get sufficient rest and recovery.
  • Schedule at least 11 hours off in-between shifts (each 24-hour period), and one full day of rest per seven days for adequate sleep and recovery.
  • Avoid penalizing those who may have restricted availability to work extra shifts/longer hours (e.g., caring for dependents).
  • For rotating shift work, use forward rotations (day to evening to night) and provide staff with sufficient notice when scheduling, particularly if there is a shift change.
  • Avoid scheduling staff for more than 12 hours, if possible.
  • Formalize and schedule regular breaks.
  • Provide alternative transportation to and from work and mandatory paid rest time prior to driving commutes after work, when possible.
  • Consider arranging for nearby offsite housing to reduce travel times, allowing for more rest and recovery.
Watch Intelex on-demand webinar, Increase Safety Engagement for Frontline Workers: How to Unlock a Culture of Safety with Mobile Digital Devices

How a Digital Safety Management System Can Help

Fatigued workers can forget or neglect the basic safety principles of their tasks, even in workplaces with excellent safety cultures. When these incidents happen, they don’t usually happen without warning. In all likelihood, tired workers have been demonstrating small errors or risky behavior for some time before their actions culminate in accidents.

In the past, safety leaders might have had no indication of fatigue-based, risky behavior until they uncovered it in a root cause analysis after an incident. Today, a digital safety management system can collect observations-based data that helps prevent those incidents from occurring.

Mobile devices help to put the management system into the hand of every frontline worker. Workers don’t always have access to onsite laptops or desktops to report observations, and paper forms are so impractical that most people are unlikely to use them at all. Mobile applications allow frontline workers to submit observations of unsafe behavior or other hazards that can highlight the potential impact of worker fatigue and prevent incidents before they happen.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is also having a significant impact on keeping workplaces safe. Protex AI is a solution that uses existing CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras to monitor the work environment for unsafe behavior and other activities that could result in incidents. Protex AI continuously monitors the workplace and logs incidents and behaviors, including workplace violations that could be the result of worker fatigue. The data from these observations can then go directly to the Intelex system. This helps safety leaders get deeper insight into the leading indicators that can help identify workplace fatigue and find ways to address it before it results in safety incidents that cause fatalities, injuries or equipment damage.

Helping Workers Do Their Best Work

Workplace fatigue isn’t unusual. As frontline workers deal with the demands of increasingly complex workplaces and demanding market conditions, many workers are having to work longer hours and be more productive. That can sometimes mean longer shifts and less sleep. It is therefore important for organizations to have procedures and technology in place to ensure workers can get the rest they need and prevent fatigue from causing careless behavior in the workplace.

Learn more about Intelex Safety Observations Software
This entry was posted in Occupational Health and Safety and tagged , , , , by Sandy Smith. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the Director of Global Content and Brand for Intelex Technologies. Formerly the Content Director for EHS Today, she has been writing about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990. Her work as a journalist and editor has been recognized with national and international awards. She has been interviewed about occupational safety and health for national business publications, documentaries and television programs; has served as a panelist on roundtables; and has been the keynote speaker for occupational safety and health conferences.

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