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Managing fatigue during harvest season


April 29, 2013
By Dan Woolley

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Hard work, high temperatures and long hours during the harvest season can combine to cause worker fatigue and exhaustion, issues that need to be managed, according to Dave Powers, director of health, safety and the environment for the Oxford Frozen Food Group.

“If we don’t have people operating at their peak efficiency, everything else suffers,” he said.

Sleep deprivation is a big factor in major industrial accidents, said Powers, adding fatigue is also involved in one in six fatal road crashes.

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The sleep requirements of different age groups vary, with teenagers needing at least 10 hours of sleep per night, the average adult between 25 and 55 requiring at least eight hours of shut-eye, while seniors over ago 65 need about six hours of sleep. According to Powers, 17 hours of sustained wakefulness leads to a level of impairment comparable to .05 percent alcohol intoxication. He adds that after 18 days of prolonged wakefulness, research has shown that a person can experience hallucinations, paranoia, blurred vision, slurred speech, plus memory and concentration lapses.

Powers emphasized that fatigue results in reduced alertness, with the sleep debt accumulating until paid off with adequate sleep, which becomes a challenge during the harvest season.

The human body operates on a 24-hour cycle of circadian rhythm, which controls bodily functions such as sleepiness, digestion, hormone production and body temperature, explained Powers. These rhythms make a person sleepy when it is dark.

Fatigue can result from disruptions to the body’s natural circadian rhythms due to the work schedule, the type of task, the work environment and non-work related issues, Powers said.

Sleep is best obtained in one block, although napping is beneficial, he said, adding there are four sleep stages of varying intensity. The most damaging effect of sleep deprivation occurs with inadequate sleep at Stage Three, which is when the body restores energy, boost the immune system and repairs its tissues.

Stage Four – REM sleep, – helps the mind with memory and concentration, said Powers. Inadequate REM sleep can result in diminished concentration, a slower reaction time and trouble remembering.

“Being fatigued at work makes you a risk to yourself and other workers,” he said. “Get the sleep you need and set the bedroom up for sleeping.”

It should be as dark and quiet as possible, he explained. The bedroom temperature should be kept between 18 and 24 Celsius and any distractions should be moved to another room. An unfamiliar noise in the bedroom in the first and last hour of sleep has the greatest effect on the sleep cycle, said Powers.

“The sleep cycle can even be disrupted from the light of a digital clock. Make sure you will not be distracted.”

Bedtime routine should be kept as regular as possible.

“Be careful what you eat or drink before bed,” said Powers, adding a person should drink plenty of fluids – as much as two-liters daily – although coffee, tea and alcohol will increase thirst and alcohol can disrupt sleep.

“Don’t toss and turn waiting to fall asleep.”

If a shift time is going to change, workers should adjust their bedtime gradually, said Powers. He also recommends that after a worker wakes up, he or she spends five to 10 minutes waiting for their sleep inertia to pass.

If fatigue strikes during normal awake hours, naps of more than 10 minutes can improve alertness and mood and its value doesn’t depend on the time of day it is taken, he said.

“Eat right, maintain blood sugar levels, and eat low-fat, high protein food, which can help you sleep better and feel more rested.”

Sometimes getting to sleep can be a big problem, especially when a person has a lot of issues to think and worry about.
“Exercise can help you sleep better and feel more rested,” Powers said. “It relieves stress and boosts health and the immune system.”

If exercise doesn’t help, a visit to the doctor might be required.

“Sleeping pills can help; but don’t self-medicate,” Powers warned, adding that cold and flu medications can either put someone to sleep or keep them from sleeping.

“Use them with care when working.”