Fitness for duty - a psychologist's perspective

INCLUSION of fitness for duty provisions in Queensland legislation reflects a broader industrial awareness of the links between individual physical and mental health and safety at work.

Staff Reporter

In this article, consulting psychologist Brad Strahan describes a broad rationale for responding to fitness for duty regulations and comments on some of the issues that mines will need to address. In particular, he comments on fatigue and psychological impairment.

Rationale

The fitness for duty regulations are about the mutual benefits and responsibilities that both companies and employees share. Individuals benefit from the regulations by increased safety at work, improved working conditions and the good health that goes with gainful employment and careful living. Improved safety at work benefits companies by way of improved production, less damage to equipment and more efficient use of employee’s time. Of course these benefits come with a cost – such as taking responsibility for either individual lifestyle or workplace design.

When I talk with managers or workers about these issues I use the diagram below. The fitness for duty regulations require all personnel to present themselves to the workplace free of the influence of alcohol, drugs, fatigue or other physical or psychological impairment. In order to arrive at the workplace boundary in a fit state individuals have to make decisions about what they put in their mouth, how much sleep they get and so on. These decisions have an impact on the personal world.

Fitness for duty requires mutual responsibilities for good decision-making.

The regulations also call for responsible and thoughtful workplace design. Decisions need to be made about roster design, work allocation, competence standards and workplace relations in ways that minimise fatigue and stress while getting on with the business. The key to understanding these complex issues is the notion of mutual benefits and responsibilities.

Approaches

At the moment there are two broad approaches being adopted in Queensland coal mines. The first can be seen as a measurement approach and relies on a supposed assessment of individual fitness for duty at the start of each shift. Two devices are currently being used – OSPAT and Fit2000. The benefits of this approach are that it reduces ambiguous issues and information to a quantifiable result – fit for duty or not fit for duty - and it confronts people with an assessment at the start of each shift.

However, there are some problems with this approach. First, there are serious questions about the possibility of measuring fatigue and stress accurately. Secondly, it focuses people’s attention on assessment and employees tend to expend energy on developing ways of “getting around the policeman”.

My understanding is that the new legislation is intended to encourage people to manage themselves responsibly. The measurement approach encourages compliance rather than personal responsibility and is driven by extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation. A subtle distinction in the short term, but very important in predicting sustainable change.

The second approach can be seen as an educational approach. The rationale goes like this. We want people to manage themselves responsibly and intelligently. We will give them the information and training they need to be able to do this well, and put procedures in place that allow them to understand and manage their own risks. We will also hold people accountable for managing themselves.

The down side of this approach is that it does not attempt to offer a clear assessment and decision about a person’s fitness for duty. There is some ambiguity that must be tolerated. In the short term it gives control to individuals because it assumes that most people can be trusted for most of the time. The advantage of the ambiguity is that it really requires each person to take responsibility for understanding their own limits and to work within those limits.

Currently, both of these approaches find support in the industry. It is my view that the supporters of each approach make very different assumptions about people and people management. At this stage we don’t know under what circumstances each approach might be most appropriate. My money is on the second approach – if it’s done well and in conjunction with other strategies to build a positive workplace environment. If it’s not done well, it won’t make any difference and mines may as well opt for compliance in the short term and forget the bigger workplace-relations issues.

Special issues

There are several issues that I think are important to understand.

1) The fatigue and psychological impairment provisions require different methods and approaches than the alcohol and drugs provisions. Because the science of measurement of alcohol and drugs is well established and quantifiable testing is a real choice the path forward is reasonably well defined and understood. Responses to these provisions require negotiating schedules of testing, training, and recognition of ongoing problems and referral to a health professional. However, fatigue and psychological impairment are not as well understood and not as quantifiable.

2) The way forward for managing fatigue involves:

§ The identification of those aspects of the workplace that might expose people to unreasonable risk and making the necessary adjustments (ie risk assessment).

§ Developing acceptable procedures for dealing with people who are at risk while at work. Experienced deputies have been doing this for years and their approaches are probably worthwhile adopting as policy.

§ Offering training that provides practical solutions to sleep problems. In a questionnaire study of 250 employees of a Queensland coal mine, we found that those people who planned and organised their life managed fatigue better and reported fewer symptoms than those people who did not have a plan. We designed training around taking each person through the process of recognising their own areas of risk and then developing a personal plan to cope with sleep needs.

§ Challenging those attitudes and beliefs that minimise the importance of fatigue as a real risk and threat to mining operations. Many people, both staff and operators, experience quite significant sleep problems and these sleep difficulties add to their sense of stress and anxiety. It is known that ongoing sleep problems can lead to depression.

In a second study we found that 52% of people at a Queensland underground mine reported that poor sleep was the major reason they got really tired at work. In the same study 45% of respondents reported they found coping with fatigue very difficult (although these figures varied depending on roster arrangements, on some rosters the figures went as high as 70% of people saying coping was difficult). A significant number of people have reported attitudes and beliefs that expose them to increased risk. For example, 35% of employees at one mine agreed that they could continue to work effectively and safely even when very tired. This attitude and belief represents a risk that must be addressed.

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