Interview with Helen Wood TMS Consulting CEO

TMS Consulting Chief Executive Officer Helen Wood talks about the ground-breaking study into fatigue on a pipeline construction project and how the findings have led to the development of guidelines that will help companies develop holistic fatigue risk management systems.

Helen Wood CroppedWhy did APGA commission the study?

“APGA was keen to understand whether fatigue was an issue in the pipeline industry and, if so, to what extent. Better understanding of fatigue would allow APGA to proactively support members with best practice recommendations and guidelines to ensure the industry was mitigating the risks as far as practically possible.”

What was the Fatigue Management Study and what was it examining?

“TMS Consulting was commissioned in 2011 by APGA to conduct a comprehensive study into fatigue. The aim of the study was to identify the extent of occupational fatigue and, if necessary, to provide recommendations to improve fatigue management and safety. The fatigue study took place over 12 months and was based on a large-scale coal seam gas pipeline construction project in Australia. Over 400 pipeline industry employees were surveyed and tested. Based on the findings of the Fatigue Management Study, a range of recommendations for both APGA and member companies were provided to aid effective fatigue management in the pipeline industry.”

Can you tell us about how the study was structured?

“The study involved collecting extensive data from more than 400 employees working on a single large-scale pipeline construction project in Queensland. Every day a series of measurements was taken including neurocognitive performance – how the brain processes information and applies knowledge. We used actigraphic sleep watches – small watch-shaped rest and activity monitors worn by each participant – sleep logs, subjective sleepiness and fatigue scales to measure sleep/wake characteristics, and we collected extensive self-reported health and medical data. All the data was collected over seven of the 28-day work cycles that are common in the Australian pipeline industry. Profiling sleep and sleep/wake characteristics were a primary focus on the study due to the key links between sleep and fatigue.

“The study had two phases. Phase 1 involved daily objective and subjective measurements of the participating pipeline employees throughout their 28-day on-site work roster. They worked 10-hour day shifts. Phase 2 consisted of a generalised demographics, health and medical, and sleep and fatigue survey which was completed once only. The employees tested in this study grouped into three broad occupation areas: ‘field’ (including labourers, welders, riggers, and other tradespeople), ‘driver’ (including general vehicle drivers, truck drivers, and mobile plant operators) and ‘office’ groups (including management, administrators, and safety advisors).”

What were the key findings of the Fatigue Management Study?

“The key findings were:

  • Reaction time is gradually impaired over the cycle.
  • The first significant drop in impairment occurs at day 8 of the cycle.
  • Average sleep over the cycle appears to be inadequate.
  • Subjectively rated sleepiness and fatigue may not be an accurate predictor of the performance impairment that occurs.
  • A high proportion of the tested sample had key risk factors for sleeping disorders.
  • Average hours of work per week are more than 80 hours.”

What are the most significant findings?

“The data suggest that some impairments in neurocognitive performance occured over the 28-day work cycle in this sample of Australian pipeline construction employees. This performance decrement showed little evidence of stabilisation.

“Other potential risk factors for fatigue were also identified in the participants. These included consistently short nightly sleep durations; an elevated probability of sleep apnoea in drivers; long working hours; long commutes home following the cessation of a work cycle and also potentially during the early morning hours; and a pronounced peak of safety incidents between 8 to 12 hours on shift.

Why doesn’t the study recommend a shorter roster?

“It is important to note that the purpose of the study was not to validate any particular work roster.

“Many diverse factors can contribute to occupational fatigue. Interventions to manage risks associated with fatigue must consider the complex contributions and interactions of these factors. Work roster length is recognised as just one of the contributory factors.

“It appears that almost any work roster can be worked safely as long as sufficient controls are put in place to manage risk. Thus, the focus in the Fatigue Management Study report is not on the length of the work roster but on the inherent and often interacting risk factors present in any working environment. Companies and employees must look beyond the simple focus on hours of work and work roster schedules in their safety management systems and risk assessments. This report has outlined a wide range of factors to consider in the risk assessment process.”

Does the study make any recommendation on the lengths of shifts?

“No direct advice was given on an ‘ideal’ work roster length given that roster length is only one (indirect) contributing factor to fatigue; fatigue, in fact, can depend on a host of factors.

“Many industries work shifts longer than eight hours – what is important is that risks are assessed and controlled across the wide range of contributing factors.”

What can companies and their employees do in response to or to reduce fatigue?

“Key focus areas include: reviewing how fatigue is currently identified, managed, and incorporated into risk assessments, including determining whether a fatigue risk management system is beneficial for operations; greater examination of driving and plant operation fatigue hazards or any other safety-critical tasks, which may include evaluating current journey management system approaches and in-vehicle monitoring systems; greater focus on identifying sleep disorders and ensuring that working conditions provide sufficient opportunity for sleep; reviewing the provision of fatigue and sleep training and whether these are achieving their desired outcomes; and reviewing the potential benefit of creating fatigue-related safety performance indicators.”

What else can you tell us about the study?

“In response to the findings of the study, APGA in collaboration with TMS Consulting, have developed a set of guidelines. The purpose of the Fatigue Management Guidelines is to provide advice on how to develop and implement a Fatigue Risk Management System with specific applicability to the Australian pipeline industry. APGA would like to encourage the adoption of uniform fatigue management practices across the industry.”

Can the study results be applied across the whole fly-in fly-out/drive-in drive-out workforce?

“All workforces, organisations and projects are different. There are certainly some lessons and findings that all FIFO/DIDO operations would benefit from reflecting on however localised risk assessments must be undertaken.

“Like any field-based study, there are limitations. It is useful to remember that the sample was taken from a single project and there may have been possible selection bias of participants so they may not be accurately representative of the entire site workforce. It is also important to remember that field-based measurement may have lacked sensitivity for measuring reaction time and sleep.

“Despite these limitations this was a significant and ground breaking study. The methodology was academically assessed and the findings validated. APGA understands that this is the first study of its kind in the world and results are relevant nationally and internationally.”

Were the participants typical of the FIFO/DIDO workforce or the Australian population in general?

“It would not be correct to say it is a representative sample of the Australian population, but it is likely to be typical of the FIFO/DIDO Australian population, based on comparisons to recent Australian mining and gas industry demographic data.”

Do the results of the study mean that the pipeline industry is unsafe or that people working in it are at a greater risk of injury?

“The Australian pipeline industry is a safe industry. There is evidence that safety incident rates in the Australian pipeline industry are much lower than in many overseas locations. This commendable achievement is reflected in the commitment of the Australian Pipelines and Gas Association and member companies to ensuring safety, the AS2885 Australian Pipeline Standard, which was developed by the industry and research by the Energy Pipelines CRC (EPCRC), which was established in 2009. As noted by Hayes, Tuft and Hopkins of the EPCRC, the pipeline industry has typically focused on technical issues of pipelines. The organisational causes of accidents and incidents are now coming into focus and the industry is now addressing the nature of psychosocial and biological contributors to safety incidents, such as fatigue.”

Last updated on 9 Jul 2014 by kpolglaze