Worker fatigue is a problem in any occupation, but if an employee working at a desk nods off, it’s not quite as risky as one that falls asleep behind the wheel while en route or caring for a critically ill patient.  Some industries and occupations not only have higher risk for fatigue, due to the nature of the work, but there are much more significant consequences when that fatigue leads to errors or accidents.

This is especially true in the EMS field.  First responders are responsible for reaching their destinations fast, assessing dangerous situations, and delivering life-saving care.  Fatigue can reduce alertness and concentration, slow reaction times, impact memory, and impair the decision-making process.  In EMS, even a small oversight or error can have serious consequences, resulting in harm to employees or others.

In other words, you need to make fatigue/risk assessment and management a priority within your organization so you can get to the root cause and find ways to minimize fatigue and mitigate risk.  What causes fatigue and how might the workplace contribute to this condition?  How can you monitor and assess fatigue within your workforce and make operational improvements to prevent fatigue and reduce risk factors for oversights, errors, or accidents?  Here are a few ways to manage fatigue in your EMS program for the benefit and safety of all.

Why is Fatigue Assessment So Important?

As an employer, you have a reasonable expectation that employees will show up for shifts ready to perform to the best of their ability.  However, we’re all human, and we know that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Unfortunately, fatigue can be particularly problematic in the EMS field.  Whether employees accidentally miss items on a checklist, they forget to turn on lights and sirens when responding to a call, or their reaction time is slow, it can lead to accidents that harm employees and others. Using interactive form tools that have workflow and validation will help employees have multiple levels of risk management to assure these valuable tasks get completed safely.

If you balk at the potential cost of monitoring employee fatigue, consider the expense associated with negligence, errors, or accidents that could be the result of fatigue, including medical bills, legal costs, property damage, and asset downtime, just to name a few.  In the pursuit of minimizing risk factors and maintaining a manageable budget, fatigue assessment is in your best interest, not to mention the best interest of employees.

Causes of Fatigue

There’s a common misconception that one bad night of sleep is to blame for fatigue, but often, there’s a lot more to it.  Think of it this way: by the time you start to feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.  You could lose 1-2% of your body’s water content before you feel a pressing need to gulp down a beverage.

Fatigue operates under a similar principle.  When you miss a night of sleep, you may feel understandably tired, but you can likely rally by splashing some cold water on your face or downing a cup of coffee, but the chronic cycle of fatigue continues. You need to look deeper.

Fatigue, on the other hand, is a long-term problem that could be related to a variety of factors.  One of the most common causes of fatigue is ongoing sleep disruption or sleep deprivation.  In the EMS field, this can be amplified by work conditions like long shifts, nighttime shifts, miles driven during a shift, the number of incidents responded to, stress of a critical patient, and more.

Of course, employee activities or habits outside of work – other jobs, family obligations, poor diet and lack of exercise, for example – could also play a role.  In some instances, other health conditions could contribute to fatigue.  What can EMS organizations do to pinpoint problem areas and minimize fatigue?  First you have to recognize when employees are suffering from fatigue.

Symptoms of Fatigue

Sleepiness is certainly the best-known symptom of fatigue, but really, you want to look for chronic tiredness, not just a one-time instance.  Fatigue can also cause symptoms like lack of focus, issues with recall, irritability or mood swings, low motivation, impaired judgment, muscle weakness, slow reflexes, and a whole host of problems EMS professionals can’t afford when responding to emergency situations.  Would you hire an employee with these characteristics?  Probably not, so why would you allow your employees to perform daily with them?

How to Monitor, Assess, and Alleviate Employee Fatigue

Getting to the heart of the problem is essential when it comes to employee fatigue, and you may be surprised to learn there’s a lot you can do to improve conditions for your employees and mitigate the risks associated with fatigue.  You can start simply enough with a smart scheduling program that promotes consecutive schedules and ensures adequate coverage so employees aren’t overworked.

You can monitor stress and activity throughout shifts to pinpoint problem areas and encourage employees to report fatigue and offer suggestions for operational improvements.  This can be done by an employee survey.  Have it be an anonymous survey if you are concerned about employees being honest. While you have little control over what employees do in their off-time, you can offer nutritional and exercise programs to improve overall health and wellness.  Programming that helps you to monitor employee activity, gauge stress and fatigue, and manage staffing provides the best opportunity to minimize fatigue and the risks that come with it.

If you have questions on how you can assess and manage fatigue in your program with Ninth Brain, reach out to and we can setup a time to chat.