Like many other industries, the rail industry is continually tackling the challenge of fatigue. While there is no single, agreed definition of what fatigue truly means in the rail industry, evidence of fatigue among rail staff is generally seen as an inability to perform work, and a significant cause of risk – placing fatigue management as a main area of focus for improvement.

Employee fatigue is cause for concern across all industries and has been a documented contributing factor to some of the biggest workplace disasters in the world, including the Chernobyl disaster and the Exxon Valdez oil spill – considered the most environmentally devastating oil spill in history. Fatigue increases the likelihood of errors, and in environments that require constant vigilance, safety and risk awareness, this needs to be continuously addressed and managed appropriately.

What is fatigue?

Fatigue goes beyond the realms of feeling tired or dizzy; fatigue indicates mental and physical exhaustion that affects an individual’s ability to perform work safely and effectively. A fatigued person will be less alert, less able to process information and will take longer to react and make decisions. Fatigue can also be defined in two separate ways:

  • acute fatigue
  • chronic fatigue.

Acute fatigue is the result of short term sleep loss and periods of heavy physical and mental work. The effects of acute fatigue are usually relatively short and can be reversed by implementing small changes in sleeping habits and getting regular rest.

Chronic fatigue syndrome, however, is a disorder that is classified as ‘extreme tiredness’. This can worsen with strenuous work activity and tasks. This is not improved by a simple change in sleeping habits or a sufficient night’s sleep – the cause of chronic fatigue is unknown.

Fatigue in rail

Fatigue is not a modern issue for the rail industry; workers have struggled with exhaustion for many years. According to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), staff fatigue caused by excessive overtime was identified as a contributory factor in the 1988 Clapham Junction Collision. Since then, fatigue has been identified as a contributing factor in many other incidents across the industry.

Because the railways operate on a continuous, 24-hour basis, working hours can be long. Differing work schedules – such as day and night shift work – across teams can directly affect the amount of rest and sleep people get. What’s more, people don’t fully adapt to shift work, particularly evening and night work. This, coupled with perpetually rotating shift work means that restorative sleep is not as effective.

There are documented instances in rail that describe people sleeping in their cars – on site – to get more sleep, when the impact of travel time has not been considered when originally arranging shift work. To combat this, Network Rail put the Working Time Limits in place. However, while there are rules in place that indicate railway staff cannot work more than 14 hours and must not work more than 13 days consecutively, there is still no guarantee of compliance during busy periods or otherwise.

The risk of non-compliance related fatigue, for example, increases when early shifts finish later than predicted, or employees take on double shifts and overtime. Equally, night shift workers’ schedules, or when the impact of travel time is not considered, needs to be acknowledged too, alongside fatigue-related problems that may not be linked to work, such as family responsibilities, lifestyle choices and health issues.

This further amplifies why fatigue levels are difficult to quantify across the rail industry, and why the topic of fatigue is often isolated to incidents, close calls, accidents and injuries once they have already happened; the rail industry reacts to fatigue, without applying preventative measures to avoid incidents.

Using technology to apply preventative measures to fatigue management

The rail industry has identified factors that contribute to, and increase, the risk of fatigue. Emphasis is now being placed on how the industry can better examine and analyse data to move towards fatigue prevention in the future.

Here at Nutshell Apps, we’re currently working with clients across the rail industry, who are using our platform to create apps that challenge and manage fatigue. Existing apps emit warning signals when staff are approaching the end of their schedules shifts, which in turn informs the PIC or COSS when workers are reaching the end of their shifts and how long they have been working – as well as when a worker is nearing 13 days of consecutive work.

We’re also working on wireframes to enable these alerts to be set up across entire companies, by linking fatigue management to existing timesheet apps. This would enable greater communication on the topic of fatigue across entire teams, and improve collaboration within teams, leading to better fatigue support. Having these simple controls in place will allow our clients to manage risk better and start working on more preventative fatigue management options.

Preventative fatigue

Since the rail industry first began digitising its processes, the application of smartphones and their accompanying apps have highlighted the importance of integrating technology and software into daily processes – and the digitisation of fatigue management is no different.

The coupling of smartphone apps and other technologies, such as wearable tech – like activity and health trackers – is a potential next step in fatigue management across the rail industry. This would allow employers to analyse the data derived from these apps and wearables, to identify trends and patterns in how fatigue across the rail industry can be both managed and prevented.

For example, an app that connects to a wearable device will allow users to capture their own sleep data, which can then be presented on a smartphone app. The quality of sleep, in relation to the length of a working day, or tasks to be completed, for example, not only allows individuals to be aware of their own fatigue, it also allows employers across the rail industry to gain insights into fatigue related trends, further enabling them to amend work schedules and processes, to prevent fatigue in the future.

The ability to continuously assess workforce fatigue and utilise data – such as time of day, amount and quality of sleep – via smartphone apps would be incredibly beneficial to the future of fatigue management, and indeed, risk assessment in rail. The next step for Nutshell will be to begin exploring how to integrate these innovations into our platform, to ensure the rail industry are better managing risk and becoming a truly predictive and digital railway.