Construction workers work hard, and often for long shifts at all hours of the day. Under those conditions fatigue can become a major workplace risk, and with it, reduced mental wellbeing and increased risk of injuries – whether at the worksite or during the drive home.
“We know some of the world’s biggest disasters have happened around 3am, which coincides with fatigue often associated with shift work,” says Victoria Middleton, an occupational nurse for Fletcher Construction. Victoria was the wellbeing advisor for the Well-Connected Alliance – the group of companies delivering the Auckland Waterview Connection project for the New Zealand Transport Agency.
During the project up to 1000 workers were on site every day, and many of them worked shifts over 24 hours. “Because of that we knew we had to manage fatigue effectively throughout the project. The Tunnel Construction Manager designed the shift pattern very carefully based on guidelines and studies from around the world. He came up with one that suited workflows and gave our people the most rest. This included having a five-day break at the end of the pattern, with no-one working a Sunday day shift,” Victoria says.
“At toolbox talks and in our worksite communications we also talked about diet and nutrition. Such as not having a V drink or a coffee up to four hours before going off shift, and not eating junk food in the middle of the night.”
She says they also closely monitored the hours waged workers put in. “A lot of people like doing overtime for the money, but too much is dangerous. The work they do is physically hard and some of them have to drive long distances home. We know that anyone who’s worked more than 17 hours straight is the equivalent of being low-level drunk. We needed to make sure they got home safely.”
Anyone who worked more than the allowable 60 hours a week got reviewed and action was implemented by their supervisor to manage their roster cycle. They were then monitored to make sure they didn’t keep doing too much overtime.
“We had a woman working in the office, who had just moved here from England,” says Victoria. “Because she didn’t have much else to do she just stayed at work. She looked shattered. Once we found out how much she was working she was encouraged to take annual leave. She travelled and got involved in her community, which she hadn’t done before. She got to know people and her confidence grew.”
For the Well-Connected Alliance, managing fatigue is vital both to prevent injuries and to protect mental wellbeing – two factors that often go together.
“If someone is fatigued, they’re not happy. They can’t be sociable and their mental health can suffer, but we don’t force it as people – especially men – don’t like talking about it. We have to be subtle in all the big subjects – mental health and wellbeing, fatigue, smoking. If you force it they just pull away, so the best thing we found was to talk about these things as a team.”
Guest speakers helped reinforce the fatigue message on site. These included Rhett Brown, now a tetraplegic needing 24-hour care after a tumble off scaffold in 2004. It wasn’t a big fall, but he landed on the top of his head and the catastrophic injuries caused him to lose everything.
“He came in and explained to our workers that fatigue was part of why he fell, why we all need to pay attention to how much we work and how much sleep we get because fatigue causes accidents,” says Victoria. “His talk had a big impact on the team and helped us push the message that if they're tired, go and talk to their manager - maybe take a couple of days off and come back refreshed.
“We also suggest they take some time to step back if they have social issues, family issues, happening. Not doing these things could have serious and lasting consequences.”
Other speakers invited onto the worksite also discussed the importance good sleep and good nutrition has in controlling fatigue. They included comedian and mental wellbeing speaker Mike King, the Rugby 7s coach, Gordon Tietjens, and then-captain DJ Forbes (seen with Victoria in the photo above), Victoria Cross recipient Willie Apiata, and former All Black Anton Oliver.
“These guys were great at addressing the big issues. They went around every single tool box meeting, sharing their success stories and their failures. Fatigue and mental wellbeing figured highly in their talks. What was really valuable was the guys clearly got the message they are not alone.”
For more information about how the Well-Connected Alliance creating wellbeing during the build, email Victoria Middleton.