Farming and fatigue

Driving a vehicle, tractor or other heavy machinery while fatigued can be as dangerous as drink-driving.

Research has shown that being awake for 17 hours impairs performance in the same way as having a blood alcohol level of 0.05, while the effect of being awake for 20 hours is equivalent to having a level of 0.1.

Serious fatigue is not the same as feeling drowsy. It is defined as an acute state of tiredness, a state of mental and/or physical exhaustion that reduces your alertness and affects your ability to perform work safely.

The pressures of seasonal activity on a farm can mean you don’t always get enough sleep. Sometimes working very long hours with no time to unwind can worsen fatigue by causing broken sleep. Fatigue can also be caused by prolonged mental or physical activity, stress or some medical conditions.

Signs of fatigue include:
• excessive yawning or falling asleep at work
• short-term memory problems and an inability to concentrate
• noticeably reduced capacity to engage in effective interpersonal communication
• impaired decision-making and judgment
• reduced hand-eye coordination or slow reflexes
• other changes in behaviour, such as repeatedly arriving late for work
• increased rates of unplanned absence.

A person suffering from fatigue can display signs of irritability, poor judgement and impaired recollection of timing and events.

The combination of fatigue and working alone on a farm can be risky, so it’s important to have a communication system in place so your family and colleagues can keep in touch and you can call for help if needed.

Employers have a duty of care to assess wither fatigue is a work health and safety issue for their workers. Working hours and conditions need to be managed so nobody is exposed to undue risks. All workers also must take reasonable care for their own health and safety, as well as that of others affected by their work.

Safety solutions

If possible, design working hours and rosters to enable enough recovery time between shifts.

Make sure workers take enough breaks to rest, eat and rehydrate.

Have access to on-call workers for unplanned leave, emergencies or during periods of increased workload.

When rostering, structure work so the highest demand is towards the middle of a shift and decreased towards the end of the shift.

Rearrange schedules so non-essential work is not done at night.

Rotate jobs to limit a build-up of mental and physical fatigue.

Avoid working during periods of extreme heat or cold, or minimise exposure time through job rotation.

For information about SafeWork SA’s free mobile work health and safety advisory service, including to request a visit, call 1300 365 255 or visit

Article kindly provided by SafeWork SA.