The Long, And Deadly, Ride Home

“In the U.S. today, June 15th, 2014, is father’s day.  nearly 12 years ago, my father, Arthur LaDuke, lost his battle with mesothelioma.  Rest In Peace Dad.”—Phil La Duke

tracy morgan

By Phil La Duke

Last week Walmart truck driver Kevin Roper struck a limo van carrying Tracy Morgan and other comedians.  Morgan was critically injured and fellow performer James McNair was killed. Roper has been charged with vehicular homicide and similar charges. According to CNN, a Walmart spokesperson has said that Roper did not violate any rules, and allegations have surfaced that Roper had not slept for 24 hours.  In true reactionary hysteria, the cry now goes out for stricter rules on truckers.

Of course the facts aren’t all in yet, and for many, Walmart will make a convenient scapegoat, but to them I say, “he who is without sin throw the first stone.”  Fatigued driving is something that many companies simply don’t want to talk about, particularly in the entertainment business, where long hours are often the routine.  But entertainment companies are far from the only organizations that don’t want to look too closely at how the sausage is made; from logistics companies, to Oil & Gas, to mining, to manufacturing, to sales, too many organizations turn a blind eye on worker fatigue and the role it plays in gruesome injuries and even fatalities.

It’s tough for some to acknowledge the problem when they know they don’t have a good solution; so they ignore it, or they get obstinate about it, challenging critics with “how am I supposed to get the job done?”

I’ve written extensively about the dangers of worker fatigue (both here and in published work) so much so that I see little value in repeating much of it hear, but companies and safety professionals seem to think this problem is just going to go away; it won’t.

Too often we expect employees to work 12-hour (or longer shifts) and pretend that these fatigued workers aren’t at increased risk of injury despite studies that show that a fatigued workers are far more likely to exhibit impaired judgment and are more likely to make errors. In the Tracy Morgan case the driver allegedly hadn’t slept for 24 hours and was probably unfit for duty, even motion sensors and alarms failed to alert him of the impending crash.  I am not one to blame the culture or the system that condones unsafe behavior, but I doubt that Mr. Roper decided to disregard the danger and drive despite his fatigue.  Fatigue, like alcohol, impairs one’s judgment and it is reasonable to expect that a fatigued worker might decide that he or she is okay to drive even when he or she clearly is not.  When a worker is fatigued he or she is not in a position to determine his or her fitness for duty; safety professionals and the company must have clearly articulated policies for avoiding working while fatigued.  Workers should have little discretion in determining whether or not to drive while fatigued.

Professional Drivers Aren’t the Only Ones At Risk

As companies struggle to do more with less, and remain reluctant to hire additional workers, workers tend to work more overtime and/or longer shifts.  Add to this the time a worker has to commute home after a long shift and you have a recipe for disaster.  Fatigued workers slogging through heavy traffic after working a double shift poses a hazard not only to him/herself but to anyone unfortunate enough to cross his or her path.

How Culpable Should The Company Be?

Let’s say a worker has just completed a double shift and has a 1-hour commute. By the time the worker leaves the workplace he has been spent at least 18 hours either working or in transit and then will embark on the long trek home, a drive that now sees the worker potentially as impaired as if he were legally drunk in most jurisdictions.  If the worker is responsible for a traffic accident, what, if any, responsibility does the company bear? From a legal standpoint, the accident doesn’t really involve the company; the employee wasn’t on the clock and was not representing the company in anyway, but what about ethically? Does a company have an ethical responsibility for ensuring that its employees get home safely? Some would say yes while others would argue against it.  What if, instead of fatiguing a worker, a company sponsored a function where they served an employee too much alcohol and then let the worker drive while drunk; would the company be liable? I’m no lawyer (although I do occasionally impersonate one in bars to impress women) but I would guess that the company would be sued and there is a good chance—in my opinion—that they would lose.  What’s the difference between requiring employees to work beyond the point where they are safely able to drive home and allowing them to drive after over-serving them alcohol?

It’s Not Just About Driving

Fatigue is a performance inhibitor; and when a worker’s performance is inhibited he or she is far more likely to make potentially lethal mistakes.  Beyond mistake making fatigue has also been linked to:

  • Lack of manual dexterity
  • Lack of alertness
  • Increased injuries

Multiple sources list fatigue as one of the top five causal factors in workplace incidents (Chan, 2010), so while experts may attribute upward of 90% of workplace injuries to unsafe behavior, most fail to answer the question of why a worker behaved unsafely. Increasingly, that answer is linked to a lack of sleep.

No Easy Answers

While it’s easy to cast blame for allowing companies to require employees to work while fatigued (and then commute home) there isn’t an easy fix to the problem.  Workers often eagerly accept extra shifts; companies can’t control the length of worker’s commutes; and workers often report to work without having logged the appropriate hours of sleep.

Maybe the answer lies not in controlling the length of time an employee works but in a better understanding of the symptoms of worker fatigue and an awareness of the risks associated with working while fatigued.

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