Paramedics point to problems with employer’s fatigue management policy

As the NSW Ambulance service addresses union concerns regarding worker fatigue, HC speaks to an employment lawyer about the legalities of sleep-deprivation.

Paramedics point to problems with employer’s fatigue management policy
The NSW Ambulance service is facing complaints from employees over an allegedly “flawed” roster system which leaves employees to take up the slack while other officers are paid to sleep in.
Alleged problems with NSW Ambulance’s fatigue management policy and staffing issues has led the paramedics union to the state’s Industrial Relations Commission to call for minimum operating levels to be maintained at all times, the Illawarra Mercury reported.
Health Services Union Illawarra sub-branch president David McCormack says the current fatigue management policy often results in only half the region’s stations being fully operational at the start of day shift.
‘’The current on-call arrangements at a number of Illawarra stations means that paramedics are regularly called back in at night after a 12-hour shift,’’ McCormack told the Illawarra Mercury.
‘’These paramedics then need to take advantage of a ‘’sleep-in’’ the next morning to combat fatigue before they start their next shift.
‘’So the Illawarra commences many shifts with less available ambulances than it should have – and those that are available have to cover a larger area to make up the shortfall.
However, NSW Ambulance says the Illawarra region is fully staffed. 
‘’NSW Ambulance is continuing to work proactively to address union concerns regarding fatigue and other staffing issues and will return to the NSW IRC on Monday,’’ a spokesman says.
One of the major legal risks that employers whose staff don’t get enough sleep could face is a worker’s compensation claim, says Hannah Ellis, Principal at The Workplace employment lawyers.
“For example, an employee could lodge a workers’ compensation claim due to suffering from stress and anxiety at work as a result of excessive work hours (and the lack of adequate rest as a result),” Ellis told HC Online.
While there are no direct laws to make employers ensure that their employees get enough sleep, there is a general requirement under Work Health Safety laws for employers to provide a safe working environment, Ellis says.
“Rostering employees on a regular basis to work excessive work hours that would likely result in the employee being unable to access enough sleep could be a breach of those laws,” she says.
Employees who do not get enough sleep could also perform poorly at work, resulting in accidents and mistakes.
“The accidents and mistakes by employees could result in more general commercial legal risks for the business and claims for workers’ compensation if a worker was for example, physically injured as a result of a mistake or accident occurring in the workplace,” Ellis says.
She says sleep deprivation which impairs cognitive performance can be particularly hazardous depending on the nature of the employee’s job.

Ellis shares her top tips for on fatigue management:
  • Employers should manage their employees’ workloads to ensure that their employees can cope with the amount of work given. Employers should communicate with their employees regularly for this purpose.
  • Employers could also coach employees in managing a spike in workload by, for example, prioritising difficult and urgent tasks first and letting go of unnecessary tasks.
  • It is also important for employers to be more flexible at the workplace so that employees do not ‘burn out’ by working long hours.
  • Employers should also be mindful when providing staggered shifts to their employees. For example, employers should give their employees consistent afternoon shifts for a prolonged period instead of having sporadic rotating night to afternoon shifts, which can disrupt their sleeping pattern.
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