If long hours cause fatigue-related injuries, can OSHA cite you?

Date Posted: 07/09/2019

Fatigued EmployeeWorking long hours can have safety consequences. Injuries occur more often during evening shifts (18% higher than day shifts) and during night shifts (30% higher), and fatigue is a major factor. A lack of sleep can also increase physical and mental stress, and may contribute to irritability, impaired decision making, decreased concentration, and lack of motivation.

Employers can require workers to put in overtime, and some workers may even volunteer for double shifts. For most adult (age 18 and older) workers, there is no limit on the number of hours they can work per day or week, and there is no required rest period between shifts.

Minors under 18 years of age may have restrictions, and certain occupations have limits on total hours worked (such as airline pilots, interstate truck drivers, and some health care workers). Those restrictions are imposed by agencies other than OSHA, however.

OSHA citations

Even though OSHA does not limit total working hours, the agency can cite employers under the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act. 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 will cite your company just because employees are tired. To prove a violation of the General Duty Clause, OSHA must show that:

  • The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees of that employer were exposed;
  • 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 will impact the number of hours that an employee can work before fatigue becomes a significant safety concern. In addition, the type of work may affect the seriousness of potential injuries. The General Duty Clause applies to hazards likely to cause "or serious physical harm," so a fatigued office worker might not generate a citation. However, if a press operator gets seriously injured at the end of a double shift, OSHA might think about issuing 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. An employer can even send an employee home if he arrives 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 you are obligated to address.

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