The term “Fit to Work” refers to workers’ responsibility for their own physical health and their ability to be fit and well enough to do their job. Being unfit for work can lead to workers making mistakes in their work, have an impact on their safety and increase the likelihood of accidents in the workplace. The consequences can also impact others such as co-workers, customers and even members of the public. This is especially critical when workers are doing high risk work such as driving a vehicle or operating dangerous heavy machinery.
Workers can be unfit to work when they are fatigued, mentally and/or physically exhausted, affected by drugs or alcohol, physically unfit or are unwell from sickness. Being unfit for work can be caused by both work and non-work factors, which means employers also have some responsibility to make sure their workers are not adversely affected in their health from work related causes.
Causes of Workers Being Unfit for Work
Fatigue is a state of physical and/or mental exhaustion which reduces a worker’s ability to perform work safely and effectively. Fatigue reduces alertness which may lead to errors and workplace incidents. There are many causes of fatigue which includes:
- Work being physically demanding or monotonous
- Work being mentally and emotionally demanding
- Shift work and night work
- Sleep disruption and other lifestyle factors
- Long commuting times to/ from work
- Strenuous work environments such as hot, cold or noisy workplaces
The risk of fatigue is more likely to occur to night workers because the body’s circadian rhythm is naturally programmed to sleep at night and be awake during the day. Circadian rhythms cannot be reversed and even if a worker has been working night shifts for a long time, their body will still be programmed to sleep at night. Fatigue is also common for workers experiencing a sleep debt, which is the difference between the amount of sleep the body requires (usually 8 hours) and the actual amount of sleep they get. The larger the sleep debt, the stronger the tendency to fall asleep. Sleep debt can only be erased by having more sleep.
Drugs and Alcohol
Employees have a responsibility to not be under the influence of alcohol and drugs while at work. This includes not misusing pharmacy issued medicines prescribed by a doctor. If a worker needs to take prescription medicines, they should check with their doctor on whether it will affect their work. If the medicine does have an effect, workers should notify their manager at the earliest opportunity before commencing work and should be assigned a different role until their fitness for work has been re-established.
Employer responsibilities for ensuring their staff are Fit to Work
Employers also have a responsibility to make sure their employees are fit and suited for the work they are required to do. Managers should ensure their workers have an achievable workload and are not overloaded. Unsuitable worker selection, or unrealistic workloads can place workers under strain and compromise their ability to work safely.
Employers can manage the risk of fatigue by:
- Ensuring workers take regular quality rest breaks in their working day. Extra rest breaks should be added if the work is demanding.
- Making sure the work hours are not too long. If longer working days are required, consider staggered start and finish times and/or longer rest breaks and periods off work.
- Scheduling tasks appropriately during the working day, such as not scheduling dangerous strenuous tasks very early before dawn, or in the afternoons when workers are at a low functioning period.
- Avoid working during extreme temperatures or minimise exposure through job rotation.
- Monitoring and placing limits on working overtime and excessive hours.
- Providing adequate rest facilities.
Good supervision should be provided, where workers can freely report fatigue or other issues to management. Employers should also identify incidents where fatigue may be involved and should ensure controls are in place to prevent future accidents.
An employee can also be rendered unfit for work due to grief, stress, illness, or other distressing situations. Employers should strive to create a positive work environment where employees are encouraged and supported, and free to express issues that affect them. Employers can inform workers of third-party assistance such as counselling and/or other government supports. When employees are ill, employers should inform workers of their entitlements and allow them to take leave. If employees experience long term illness, they should discuss with their employer what changes need to be made in the workplace, including the provision of workplace aids to support the worker if they want to keep working.
All workers have a responsibility to ensure they turn up in a state fit for work, having done everything possible to get good rest, whilst not being under the influence of drugs and alcohol. However the responsibility is for everyone in the workplace, management included, to make sure that workers are fit for work and suited for the tasks they are required to do.