If long hours cause fatigue-related injuries, can OSHA cite you?
Date Posted: 05/16/2022
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Working long hours can have safety consequences. Compared to day shifts, more injuries occur during evening shifts (18% higher) and night shifts (30% higher), and fatigue is a significant factor. Even so, OSHA does not regulate hours worked, does not require breaks, and does not require a minimum sleeping or rest period between shifts.
The federal Fair Labor Standards Act requires overtime pay after 40 hours, at least for most employees, but it does not require breaks. Under federal law, employees could be required to work 16 hours per day (or more) without breaks. For most workers age 18 and older, there is no federal limit on daily or weekly hours. However, state agencies may require breaks or meal periods, or may require overtime after eight hours per day (including Alaska, California, and Nevada).
Minors under 18 years of age may have restrictions on hours worked, and certain occupations have limited hours, such as airline pilots or interstate truck drivers. In addition, states may limit consecutive hours for professions like nurses. However, OSHA does not enforce those limits.
Even though OSHA does not limit working hours, the agency can cite employers under the General Duty Clause. A Letter of Interpretation dated July 12, 2016, says, “OSHA has long been aware of the hazards of sleep deprivation from working night shifts and has addressed this serious issue in public forums. OSHA has also issued citations to companies when they ignored the human factor of employee fatigue from excessive overtime.”
This doesn’t mean OSHA can cite a company just because employees are tired. To prove a violation of the General Duty Clause, OSHA must show that:
- The employer failed to address a hazard to employees;
- The hazard was recognized;
- The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and
- There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard.
How much is too much?
Factors such as age, health conditions, and activities outside of work all affect the number of hours an employee can work before fatigue becomes a safety concern. In addition, the type of work affects the seriousness of potential injuries.
The General Duty Clause applies to hazards likely to cause “death or serious physical harm,” so a fatigued office worker might not generate a citation. However, if machine operators get seriously injured after working long hours, OSHA might issue a citation.
Considering the adverse effects of fatigue on both safety and productivity, employers should watch for signs of fatigue and encourage employees to take sick time or vacation if their condition may pose a threat to themselves or others. Employers can even send employees home if they arrive unfit for work, such as showing up hungover on two hours of sleep. If that employee holds a safety-sensitive position, the worker’s condition might even be a “recognized hazard” that employers are obligated to address.
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