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The Safety Guru_EP 109_Susan Sawatzky_Fatigue Risk Management Ensuring Safety in High-Risk Work



In this episode, we deep dive into the critical topic of effectively managing fatigue in high-risk work environments with our special guest, Susan Sawatzky. Join us as we explore various factors that contribute to fatigue and discuss strategies to effectively mitigate risks and manage its effects. Tune in to learn how these approaches can enhance worker safety and productivity, emphasizing safety as a priority in industries where every second counts. Listen now!


Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies ubiquitously have safe, yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost for the C-suite. It’s a real topic of daily focus. This is the Safety Guru with your host, Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized ops and safety guru, public speaker and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to the Safety Guru. Today, I’m very excited to have with me Susan Sawatzky. She does a lot of work in the safety space, particularly around fatigue management and the application of fatigue management systems within organizations, particularly in a high-risk industry. Susan, very excited to have you with me on such an important topic. Why don’t we start out with a bit of an introduction to how you got into this space?

Thanks, Eric. Yeah, it’s interesting because I’ve had a bit of a long career path. I actually started my first career as a junior high math and science teacher, and I guess you could say that’s where I learned my stress management skills, which is an area that we specialize in. But through a series of events, I ended up leaving teaching and moving into health and safety. And I worked for one of the key safety associations. And in that work, I ended up managing the fatigue portfolio for the Canadian oil and gas industry. And that was a really enlightening moment for me because I discovered my passion for managing this was quite strong. I found it was very much an under-recognized hazard, and I really enjoyed making safety information relevant and meaningful for people. Right. And so, I shifted my career and really tied that into a key focus of what I was doing, especially as I became a consultants. In terms of certifications, I have a master’s in industrial psychology, and a lot of people aren’t really aware of what an industrial psychologist does, but it’s basically a professional who helps organizations develop the systems and processes that they need to enhance their human capital, their people. And what we’ve really learned is that making businesses better for people just makes better businesses. I do work as an adjunct professor. I guess carry my teaching on a little bit in that way as well. I instruct for three different universes. To say it is also very much an honor to be on your show and share some of this information with your listeners.

Cool. So, let’s talk a little bit about fatigue and why we How do you care about fatigue within an organization.

Yeah, I think the best place to start is with probably one of the most famous studies ever done, Looking at Fatigue. And that just notes the impairment that fatigue causes when we reach the higher levels. And this study was done way back in the 1990s, but it’s been repeated so many times since. And in essence, what the researchers did is they got a lot of people drunk. And then once they sobered up, they let them become really tired. They kept them awake for 28 hours straight. And they just compared their ability to perform mental and physical tasks in both of those states. And what they found was that Now, at only about 17 or 18 hours awake, we perform at the same level of impairment as somebody with a blood alcohol level of 0.05. Around 21, 22 hours awake, we’re as impaired in our abilities as someone at the legal limit with a blood alcohol level of 0.08. And at about 24 hours awake, we’re as impaired as somebody with a blood alcohol level of 0.10, which is well over the legal limit. And if you take that information and you put it into a work application and you think about someone who shows up at the workplace legally drunk, you’re not going to give them the keys to the company vehicle and say, Yeah, just be careful out there, right?

But if somebody shows up and they’re like, I’m exhausted. I haven’t been able to sleep. I’ve not slept for several days. We just don’t have that same awareness of impairment and how it can endanger someone. It’s interesting because the National Safety Council has noted that fatigue is contributing to about 13% of all workplace injuries. I mean, that’s a significant number. More than one in 10 likely have fatigue contributing to it. I find that when I work with organizations, a lot of the incidents that are related to fatigue get overlooked. So, companies are really good at figuring out those low-frequency, high-severity incidents. The guy drove off the road at 2:00 AM. Okay, yeah, we get that’s fatigue, right? But those higher frequency, lower severity incidents are often the ones that companies miss entirely if they don’t have fatigue integrated into their incident investigation process. So, these are the incidents that often get reported as work or error. And the key to identifying or ruling out if fatigue was contributing to those incidents, it really comes down to asking the right questions and noting the precursors within an incident to recognize that and fatigue was a big part of that.

And are there organizations that are more at risk? Are there some factors that are more likely to increase the risk profile?

Absolutely. There really are organizations that would be what I would call high risk in terms of fatigue and fatigue-related issues. And I think one of the more difficult safety aspects to thinking about that is that we all know that fatigue involves not just workplace factors, but also personal factors. So, we know that when it comes to the personal factors, it’s dependent on how much quality or quantity of sleep people are getting. Do they have a lot of personal commitments? Do they have sleep-related issues or health concerns or commute a long way to work? But within the workplace, there are definitely factors that influence how high risk a company is. Some of the factors that an organization wants to be aware of, number one, high-risk schedules. Do you have shift work, night shifts, long rotations, long work hours? Those immediately put an organization into a higher risk because you’re setting up a situation where people are likely to become fatigued. Other risk factors, any driving requirements, and whether that’s driving on site, like a warehouse or mining, transportation or long commutes, all of those increase the risk. Physically and mentally demanding work will increase the risk of fatigue, but surprisingly, also monotonous and boring work can increase those risks.

Because if you think about it, when you’re doing something really boring, you start to… Makes sense. Yeah, tired and tuning out. And situations like control room operators, for example, that can be a really big issue. Anything that’s safety sensitive, and I define that really loosely, if someone No one doesn’t follow the protocols and they can get hurt doing it. I call that safety sensitive. High stress environments, especially if you got high demands from clients that you’re trying to meet. And then just general things like lack of breaks or resting areas, chaotic environments, noise, vibration, all of those add to it. And one other thing that often gets missed is the demographic of your workers. So, if you have workers of older workers, and by that, I mean, really, honestly, over 45 doing shift work, that can start to have an impact on how likely people are to be fatigued.

Is there something as well in terms of the types of shifts? Because sometimes, as an example, there’s a six on, three offs where you’re having to do early mornings and switching to late evenings or those types of pieces having a different impact versus four long days. Is that a variable as well to consider?

Absolutely. And in fact, it can be relatively complex to figure the best shift to have in relation to your organization. When it comes to shift scheduling, I often refer to a client who runs the biomathematical research on the existing schedules. But there are some general principles. In general, you shouldn’t shift people backwards. They should shift forwards, so they should go afternoons to evenings rather than evenings backwards. Yeah, other general principles are just keeping the reasonable. We know that after four-night shifts, Workers tend to become more fatigued because we recognize that by the fourth night, that sleep debt is starting to catch up and your circadian haven’t shifted you to the new shift. And a lot of the shifts that do exist, for example, the four and two, four and three, for example, those have been run through the biomathematical modeling to be determined as good shifts for those organizations. So, I would strongly suggest that when a company is looking to optimize the shifts that they have, they run that through the software and really understand where the risks are greatest.

We’ve touched a little bit on some of the patterns that can impact or increase your likelihood of having some issues around fatigue within your organization. What are some effective strategies that you’ve seen in terms of managing that fatigue risk within an organization?

When it comes to managing fatigue in large and even mid-size organizations and high-risk industries, I really have three principles that I apply. The first principle, the first main thing is that the complexity of your fatigue risk management strategy should align with the complexity of your risks and your operations. So, I’m not going to put this big, complex strategy on a medium or low-risk company that has pretty straightforward operations. But if you have really high risk and lots happening in your operations, you are going to need things like what’s called a five-level fatigue risk management strategy, which just has redundancy built into it to help ensure you’re better managing the risk. And to figure that out, I normally just do a bit of a fatigue audit and then provide them a gap analysis. Like, what do you have for risk? What do you already have in place? What are the things you need to add to really make sure that you’re managing that to the best of your organization’s abilities? I think my second key principle is that when you’re doing that overarching fatigue risk management strategy, I can design that for the company, but implementation has to be collaborative.

You have to have input from workers to operations, supervisors, across the board, if you really wanted to integrate and make a difference. There is no one size fits all. Here’s a strategy, everyone uses it. You’ve got to really have the feedback and tailor it to fit what you’re already using for safety strategies. And then I think my final one, and I know our company is a little bit unique in this approach, but I really think you should try to make your strategies quantifiable. And when you do that, you just create a clear course of action for supervisors, workers, and there’s just no guesswork. And I’ll maybe give you an example of that because that one’s not quite as clear. So, Let’s say you have a worker, and they show up, and either they self-identify fatigue or the supervisor who’s been trained, they can see it, they recognize it. First step is quantified how tired you think the worker is, and you do that on a scale. So, you can use descriptive words like a little bit tired or very tired, but you put those on a numbered scale. Next step is you’re going to have a structured conversation between the supervisor and the worker.

And again, every question that the supervisor asks gets rated on a numeric scale. So, it’s not just the qualitative answer, there’s a number. And then it’s really easy to take those numbers and say, okay, well, if self-identification and discussion led to this number, here’s the list of countermeasures that you should be looking at doing. And it could be everything from have someone grab a cup of coffee to take a nap before they start shift to, we’re not putting any safety-sensitive work in front of this person because they’re just not going to be safe doing it. So, when you quantify it, I think it just makes all the decision making so much easier. And those are the three big principles we apply when I work with companies. Sure.

And what are some of the set challenges that you face or that fatigue management approaches will face in organizations?

That’s a really good question. And I think it’s important to think about that when organizations are working to bring in fatigue risk management. Knowing those barriers ahead of time is just really useful in anticipating them and then working to overcome them before they block your progress. Right. Some of the big barriers I see is lack of training. If your organization, and by that, I mean your workers, your supervisors, even your contractors, if they don’t really understand that fatigue is actually a health and safety concern, if they just see it as, Well, that’s part of the job, or that’s what we have to do to get the work done, you’re going to face barriers right off the top. It makes sense that people don’t always see it because as a society, we pay people and reward fatigue. You get paid more to work the night shift or the longer hours. So, we’ve incentivized it. So, it is a little bit of backtracking to say, okay, well, now we see that this creates risk. I think another issue that lack of training is, workers will just have their one or two go-to strategies, and they won’t have a big toolbox of strategies.

I have those one, two that I always use, but I don’t know about all these other ones that could help me better manage fatigue. And then There is definitely the Superman mentality. So, it’s just what I term. I mean, everyone can relate to that concept, right? The workers who are like, I’ve done this for years. I only need five hours sleep. Fatigue doesn’t impair me at all. I’m good. I’m good. I’m good. And research, hands down, shows that over time, the more and more fatigued we are, our impairment does increase, but we become less and less aware of how it’s impairing our abilities. So, it makes sense that people don’t think it’s impairing them, but it definitely is. I think another big barrier that I often see is employers that don’t fully recognize the risks to their organization when they’re not managing fatigue. So, they might not see how it’s impacting things like worker health, which, of course, can impact your worker’s compensation or your benefits and even absenteeism. Of course, worker safety, not always recognizing those incidents, but other areas like productivity or employee retention or even just your overall work culture. Tired and cranky workers tend to create more conflict in the workplace.

It’s not such at the right place to be. So, all of those can have an impact. Right. And I think one of the biggest barriers overall that I see is that, especially in certain industries, it’s simply perception. So, in some industries, it’s acceptable. In things like aviation, for example, or even long-haul transportation, you can pull over and have a nap on the job. That’s all right. But many industries, sleeping on the job is just seen as lazy and incompetent and not acceptable. And this really does bother me a little bit because I think a nap as short as 10 or 15 minutes can help with at least low levels of fatigue. So, letting someone take a normal break that they would already have and go for a 15-minute nap, that might be completely unacceptable. But that same worker could go for a 15-minute smoke break, and nobody has an issue, right? So, I think challenging those perceptions that people have about sleep and napping on the job, that’s a really big barrier to be aware of.

And we’ve talked about this before on the podcast. Are there ways that you’ve seen that work? For example, in tech, they often will have an official nap room, or they’ll have special chairs that encourage people to nap that essentially are helping create a new paradigm around What is acceptable here?

Absolutely. Yeah, there’s physical changes you can make within your work group, within your work environment, for example, napping rooms, as you mentioned, or even treadmill and ways for people to stay active if they’re in a control room environment, for example. But I’ve also seen companies that go ahead and put in these napping rooms, and no one uses them because it’s still the culture that it’s not really that acceptable or who are you to have to go for a nap? The rest of us are just fine. And so I think influencing the culture is really your biggest one, making sure people are aware of why we care and why we want to manage it. But there are a lot of things environmentally, so napping rooms, but also lighting, ergonomics. There are many things you can do that will reduce overall fatigue people are feeling.

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Are there differences by industries that you’re seeing in terms of strategies that do work around fatigue? In some environments, it’s a legal requirement. You talked about long-haul trucking as an example. There are requirements around rest and up that are legislated. What are some of the practices you’ve seen around by industry that work well?

I think one of the reasons that fatigue is often under managed in a workplace is that with the exception of only a few industries like transportation or nuclear, fatigue is just not well regulated at all. Sure. And even some industries that do regulate it, like ground transportation, The legislation isn’t always aligned with what we know about human fatigue and circadian rhythms, and it can sometimes even inhibit the ability of people to manage fatigue in the work, right? So, although if the legislation is really good, it isn’t a catch-all. They can still have issues in those industries. But employers in other industries where there’s no legislative framework around it, they have to really go above and beyond to fully manage that risk. And I mean, a big piece of that comes down to recognizing how it’s impacting your company and some of the negative impacts you’re already having in terms of safety and health and whatnot. Employers that do bring in comprehensive fatigue risk management, they’re really choosing to do so based on their understanding of reducing risks. So, reducing safety risks and recognizing the financial advantages when they increase worker productivity and retention and overall worker health.

OSHA really overall for most industries, rather than setting legislation, they just have recommendations when it comes to fatigue management. And of course, And one of their key recommendations is providing worker training and education so that people are at least aware of the hazard. And to me, that one makes a lot of sense. We train on so many hazards in the workplace, and yet I’ll go into high-risk industries and high-risk schedules and say, When’s the last time you did fatigue training? And they’re like, oh, I don’t know. Maybe 10 years ago, we talked about it. It’s funny how that one just doesn’t get trained on the level that people should be aware if they’re dealing with a hazard.

I think you touched on a point there in terms of the legal requirements. The legal requirement is the minimum requirement. But as you said, they’re not always designed with the best medical guidance and advice. Sometimes you can rest on saying, I’m meeting the legal requirement, but it doesn’t mean you’ve eliminated fatigue. It’s how do I go above and beyond? As you mentioned before, there’s a lot of very negative incentives Overtime being one of them, and how overtime gets allocated, specifically in some industries, where I remember we talked in a prior episode of this podcast, even in healthcare as an example, that in the UK, they legislated how many hours people could work, but it didn’t stop the extreme overtime that was occurring because the incentives are still there. In some cases, some industries, when you’re getting to double overtime, triple overtime, it can be very lucrative to work those long days and risky.

Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more. And sometimes it’s not even the employer that’s putting up the barriers in terms of fatigue management. Sometimes it’s the union or the workers themselves. I’ll share a quick story about that. I was doing some work up north in the Yukon, actually, and I was working at a mining organization and doing some training. And I walked in the door and the head of the union for the miners walked up and said to me, Lady, because it’s a mind, and he goes, Lady, if you’re here to tell us that we have to change our shifts, we’re walking every last one of them. And I’m like, Okay, it’s all right. No worries. I’m just here to share some information, do some training. And so we did the training. And as bad luck, I guess, would have it, they did have a fairly major incident and one that could have caused a lot of fatalities. It was pure luck that it didn’t cause fatalities, and they could recognize it completely as caused by fatigue. And so, I went up to the mine about a month after this, and the exact same guy, Frank, I’ll never forget him.

He walks up to me, and he goes, Yeah, okay. We’re open to some conversations. So, I think The training can just play a really big part in that. It’s not going to overcome the lack of legislation and certain industries. It’s going to take a lot of work to really move that culture forward to recognizing and managing fatigue. But I do think getting the information out there is a great way to start.

It’s also a topic that we’ve never learned. You don’t go to school and learn about how to sleep. You don’t hear or learn about this as you your career, except in some industries. I started in aviation, and in aviation, there was a lot of focus around fatigue, mostly around managing jet lag. And doctor would come and present and teach, and there’d be very practical applications around it. But in most other industries, nobody comes to talk about sleep, fatigue, and managing it.

Yeah, you are 100 % correct. And it’s interesting, we talk about the three pillars of health, those three decisions that we make every day that it has such a huge impact on our health and wellness. And the first, of course, is nutrition, and the second is exercise, and the third is sleep. And we tend to know quite a lot of information about nutrition, and we know the latest hit workout and running and all of that. Tons of information on exercise. But yeah, sleep is just not as well known in terms of the science behind it and the things that can help us sleep better and nap better. And yeah, I agree. It’s really one of those areas that we haven’t tapped into in terms of awareness and education that we really need to.

And in some industries, I think there’s also some reluctance to address it because you’re starting to touch the out of work environment, starting to start reaching into your home and how you rest and the home circumstance. And I know for some executives, that can be a scary piece because it’s one thing to control the work environment at work. But here, sleep is not something you normally do at work unless you have nap time.

Yeah, absolutely. And it’s a little bit like a lot of human risk factors. It’s that Squishy part of safety. It’s hard to put together a perfect SOP that’s going to manage all those risks. You can do that when you’re looking at confined space and working at heights, but fatigue is just not that easy. It’s so much more complex. And I think you touched on what is really one of the foundational pieces in managing fatigue, and that is you can’t just bring in a bunch of policies and procedures and expect to manage fatigue in your organization because you’re only addressing the workplace factors. Unless you really engage your workforce and bring people on board to recognize that fatigue is a health and a safety issue that impacts all of us, that’s the only way you’re going to start to have an impact on some of those personal outside guide factors that influence fatigue in the workplace.

Absolutely. Thank you so much, Susan, for coming and sharing some of your experience around fatigue management and how it can be a key contributor to safety outcomes and some ideas around how to make a positive impact in this space.

Yeah, it’s been a real honor. Thank you so much, Eric, for having me on. I appreciate it.

And if somebody wants to get in touch with you, how can they do that?

Absolutely. People can reach out through my email. It’s Susan, S-U-S-A-N, and then, so I-N and then a hyphen, and then Also, our website, which is also You can go there and check us out and feel free to reach out.

Perfect. Thank you so much, Susan.


Thank you for listening to The Safety Guru on C-suite Radio. Leave a legacy. Distinguish yourself from the past. Grow your success. Capture the hearts and minds of your teams. Elevate your safety. Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their safety leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance. Begin your journey at Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo Consulting.   

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Susan Sawatzky is the President of In-Scope Solutions, a company dedicated to managing human risk factors or “The People Part of Safety” with a focus on fatigue risk management, stress management, mental health and wellness, enhancing healthy workplace cultures, and psychological health and safety in the workplace. Susan leads her team in providing awardwinning training based on a belief that emphasizes the importance of engaging people with the content and fostering a deep understanding of its relevance to their work and lives.

Susan is an instructor with the University of Alberta, the University of New Brunswick, and the University of Calgary, instructing Fatigue Management, Safety Management Systems, Business & Leadership, Human Performance Leadership, and Psychological Health and Safety, among other courses in their various OHS Programs.

Susan’s specialization in fatigue risk management began over a decade ago when she managed the fatigue portfolio for the Canadian Oil & Gas Safety Association. Since then, she has assisted numerous organizations in conducting fatigue risk audits, developing customized strategies, integrating fatigue mitigation measures into their workflow, and implementing fatigue-based technology. Her clients span through numerous industries all across North America.

Susan is also an international speaker and keynote conference presenter. She has presented for a variety of conferences and organizations with notable clients including the American Society of Safety Professionals, the Global Conference on Fatigue Management, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

For more information:

Susan Sawatzky, MA Ind. Psych, B. Ed, CRSP, HSA

President, In-Scope Solutions

[email protected]

P: 403-874-8271




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