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Siestas save fatigued farmers 10 Mar 2016

As we head into another busy time of year, grain and cotton growers especially are being encouraged to consider the benefits of giving in to the urge to have a post-lunch siesta.

New research shows the impact of fatigue on farmers is as bad as having an above-the limit blood alcohol reading, and continuous long work days correlate with increases in health issues, like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

An Australian-based fatigue management expert says a timely 15-20 minute nap could improve your reflexes, lift productivity and significantly reduce the risk of accident or injury.

Dr Siobhan Banks is a senior researcher with joint roles at the Centre for Sleep Research at the University of South Australia and as an assistant professor of Sleep in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States.

She says there are simple steps those working in agriculture can take to reduce feelings of fatigue during high-intensity work periods.

“It is important people do what they can to counteract the impact of extra busy times, because farmers can’t just stop planting or harvesting, for example, and get eight hours sleep,” she explained.

“But if you are a farmer there are straightforward measures you can take to be better prepared for a time of extra work intensity.

“Go to bed a little earlier each night in the lead up, eat well and exercise; think of it like a marathon runner preparing for an event and your stamina and recovery time will be better,” Dr Banks said.

During events like harvest, spraying or lambing she says there are practical strategies farmers can use to reduce the impact of fatigue:

1. Short, timely breaks. A 15-20 minute nap in the early afternoon fits in with the body’s natural clock. A short nap in the morning will be less effective.

2. If you are working around the clock, try to take a longer break during the high risk period for accidents and exhaustion – between 11pm and 6am. 

3. Stay hydrated. Dehydration will exacerbate feelings of weariness. 

4. Use caffeine in moderation, but reduce your use in the hours before you need to sleep. 

5. If you are feeling stressed before going to bed, try writing a to-do list for the next day.

6. Have the air conditioning on in the cabin of your machinery. Working in a cool environment will also reduce fatigue.

“Australians – and I think farmers fall into this category in particular – have a strong work ethic, so admitting you need sleep can be perceived as weak or lazy,” Dr Banks said.

“But what need people to understand is there are significant productivity losses if you are working tired. 

“Being awake for 17 hours continuously is the equivalent of having a blood alcohol level of 0.05 or 0.08. Your reflexes and co-ordination are significantly impaired and it’s not the sort of state you want to be in, driving a machine worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Falling asleep on the job or while driving machinery, fatigue, and pressure to get the job finished have proved a potentially lethal combination in agriculture with research putting farmers in the high risk group when it comes to workplace injuries and fatalities.

According to a study conducted by the Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety at the University of Sydney (ACAHS), the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) and the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC), the death rate for farmers is 33 per cent higher than that of the general male population and most agricultural injuries and fatalities linked to vehicles, plant and machinery occur in the grains industry.

It is one of the reasons the Primary Industries Health and Safety Partnership (PIHSP) is committed to raising awareness about fatigue management, as it works to improve the health and safety of workers and their families in farming industries across Australia. 

PIHSP is funded by the Grains, Cotton and Rural Industries Research and Development Corporations, as well as the Australian Meat Processor Corporation and Meat & Livestock Australia.

For more information about PIHSP, visit www.rirdc.gov.au/PIHSP.

For more tips on reducing fatigue visit www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au