Software Provides Tool for Mitigating Worker Fatigue

Livonia, Michigan-based WorkForce Software, a provider of fatigue management software to the nuclear, petrochemical and pipeline industries, has implement its EmpCenter Fatigue Management (FM) software program in oil and gas exploration and production (E&P) operations. The company anticipates a contract with one E&P company to be signed sometime during the first quarter.

The program is part of the EmpCenter Workforce Management suite, which allows oil and gas companies to track the number of hours an employee puts in on the job to ensure employee work hour limits are enforced and that employees are fit for duty. The company said the program can help boost productivity, improve morale, reduce operating costs, and reduce the risk of fines and litigation.

"No matter how safe a piece of equipment is made, if the human operator is making a wrong decision, all the safety systems won't prevent an accident," said WorkForce CEO Kevin Choksi.

The system tracks the activities performed by workers on the job and absences, and alerts managers, supervisors or human resources personnel whenever a potentially fatigued employee is scheduled. Data is collected directly by the EmpCenter FM or imported from other workforce management solutions and integrated data collection devices. If needed, a list of workers who are fit for duty is pulled to replace a worker in danger of fatigue.

EmpCenter FM also features prebuilt Compliance Paks that delivers 'out-of-the-box' compliance to the nuclear power, petrochemical and gas & hazardous chemical pipeline industries. As regulatory changes are issued, WorkForce Software will work with customers to determine their preferred operational approach to integrating such changes, and will update the Compliance Pak accordingly.

Human Fatigue Root of Safety, Productivity Management Barriers

Software systems that monitor worker fatigue risks are one of the tools being implemented by companies seeking to mitigate worker fatigue.

Research efforts into circadian rhythms and sleep patterns, as well as the factors that cause fatigue, has prompted regulatory changes within industries that operate on a 24/7 basis, including airline, nuclear, and trucking industries, requiring that fatigue risk management systems (FRMS) be implemented to address worker fatigue.

The American Petroleum Institute also updated its recommendations for worker safety in downstream operations in its Recommended Practices 755 to reflect recent research into worker fatigue. Published in 2010, RP 755 requires all U.S. refining and petrochemical operations to implement a comprehensive FRMS.

"The research has been available for quite a while, but the actual implementation of research findings often lags behind the research," said Todd Dawson, vice president of Stoneham, Mass.-based Circadian, which designs and implements FRMS systems in the oil and gas and other industries. This fatigue can include physical fatigue from jobs that require heavy lifting to mental fatigue, where a worker sitting alone in a refinery control room stares at a control panel all day without interaction.

Dawson noted that the oil and gas industry has been pro-active for a number of years in addressing fatigue management in terms of scheduling and attempting to balance work and family life for its employees. However, the size of oil and gas projects and amount of work associated with them, coupled with the finite number of people available to work at any time, makes managing worker fatigue challenging.

The science of fatigue has been evolving over the past 30 years, and these research efforts show that human fatigue is the root of many barriers to safety management and productivity within the industry, said Dr. Susan Koen, an organizational psychologist and founder and CEO of Round the Clock Resources.

"Our thinking is that fatigue management has to be examined in all three facets," said Dr. Koen. While physical fatigue, or the wear and tear on human bodies, and mental fatigue, or the overtaxing of the human mind, are two aspects, it's cognitive fatigue that is the most crucial and overlooked form of fatigue, Koen noted.

Portland, Maine-based Round the Clock Resources provides training for fatigue risk management for both managers and frontline employees. The company seeks to create a "virtuous cycle" in a work environment – in which the company can optimize productivity and energy in its workers – by strategically analyzing a company's fatigue risk and implementing changes to how work is scheduled, the sequence of hours, work time versus rest time and the physical and environmental conditions of a company as well as its culture.

Fast-Paced Work Culture Plays Role in Fatigue

The root of fatigue has a number of factors, but the "always on world" of the dynamic, fast-paced and competitive work culture found in many businesses plays a role in worker fatigue.

"We're increasingly reliant on our people to perform at all levels of the business in the most sustainable way," said Dr. Koen. "Lots of times, we inadvertently create a culture of negative speed, telling workers to get it done right now."

In its examination of the role of human performance perspective in the Macondo oil spill in April 2010, the company noted the email from the BP rig manager to the drilling contractors canceling the required cement bond test because it would've taken too long.

"By being urgency-driven in its deepwater drilling operations, BP squandered the potential profits of the Macondo oil field, cost itself untold billions in both real costs and reputation costs, has nearly brought down the entire offshore oil exploration industry in the U.S.," the company noted in a white paper published in March 2011.

This trend can lead to employees working extended hours to finish work, creating mental fatigue from the anxiety and stress, and creating a vicious circle in which workers are more likely to make mistakes.

The number of workers a company has on staff also can be a root cause in fatigue risk. In some cases, companies are short on staff because of efforts to keep a company lean.

Sometimes, it's due to difficulties recruiting enough workers, an issue that the oil and gas industry currently is facing, Koen noted.

"I think the challenge for companies to get out of that vicious circle [of fatigue] is in what are they are offering the younger workforce, who don't want to work the extended hours," that older workers are willing to work. Younger workers want a more balanced work and life pattern than older previous generations of workers, Koen noted.

The long hours and physical labor involved in oil and gas jobs, including oil field service jobs, can make it difficult to retain workers, Dawson said.

"The difference between older workers and Generation X, Y and younger generations is that younger workers want to work the hours they're scheduled to on paper," Dawson said.

Generation X employees are good workers, but they don't want to be trapped into work, Dawson commented, adding that this trend is also occurring in other industries. Gen X and younger workers are leery of working jobs that require long hours, working through the night and extended time away from home. In some cases, these workers are taking lower paying jobs that allow them time at home each night and shorter hours.

"The paper schedule may look good as a recruiting tool with time off, but then when they realize they're working a lot of overtime, it can make it difficult to retain workers," Dawson said.

To build a sustainable performance level, companies need to think of work as a competitive marathon.

"If you use sprinting techniques, you're going to lose energy in terms of brain power, resulting in failures and losses and heavy costs in terms of dollars and people," Dr. Koen said.


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