Siestas save fatigued growers

Portrait of Siobhan Banks

Australian-based fatigue management expert Dr Siobhan Banks says growers who take a timely 15 to 20-minute nap could improve their reflexes, lift productivity and significantly reduce their risk of accident or injury.

PHOTO: University of South Australia

If you are a weary grain grower or a livestock producer spending long hours feeding or tending animals, it is worth giving in to the urge to have a post-lunch siesta.

New research is showing that the impact of grower fatigue is as bad as having an above-the-limit blood-alcohol reading. Also, continuous long shifts at any time of year correlate with increases in health issues such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

An Australian-based fatigue-management expert says a timely 15 to 20-minute nap could improve 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 US.

She says there are simple steps that 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 growers can’t just stop planting, for example, and get eight hours sleep,” she says.

“But if you are a grower steeling yourself for some long days, 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 says.

During events such as planting, harvest or lambing she says there are practical strategies growers can use to reduce the impact of fatigue.

  • Short, timely breaks: a 15 to 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.
  • If you are working around the clock, time your longer break for the high danger period for accidents and exhaustion – between 11pm and 6am. Dr Banks recommends sleeping as many hours as possible during this time to fit in with the body’s natural biological rhythm.
  • Stay hydrated: dehydration will exacerbate feelings of weariness. Plus, staying hydrated means regular toilet breaks, which equate to brief breaks.
  • Use caffeine in moderation, but reduce your use in the hours before you need to sleep.
  • Eat well.
  • If you are feeling stressed or anxious before going to bed, try writing a to-do list for when you wake up.
  • Have the air conditioning on in the cabin of your machinery. Working in a cool environment will also reduce fatigue.

“Australians growers have a strong work ethic – so admitting you need sleep can be perceived as weak or lazy,” Dr Banks says.

“They tend to have this attitude of soldiering on to get the job done; work hard and you’ll be repaid.

“But what people need to understand is there are significant productivity losses if you are working while feeling tired. Being well-rested and sleeping well ultimately is positive for your bottom line.

“The less fatigued you are, the less likely you are to be injured or fall asleep and drive the tractor or other vehicle into the fence.

“Being awake for 17 hours continuously is the equivalent of having a blood alcohol level of 0.05 or 0.08. Your reflexes and coordination 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.”

She says the message about making sleep a priority for those in agriculture extends well beyond the traditional hectic times such as planting and harvest.

“If you are regularly working 12-hour days you need to ensure you are getting enough downtime, because large studies have shown continuous long shifts correlate with increases in health issues, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” Dr Banks says.

“Those working longer hours and sleeping less have a tendency to compensate for feelings of fatigue by smoking, drinking alcohol or with unhealthy eating.

“There are others who cope well with the stress and the disrupted sleep patterns, but as researchers we just don’t know why,” she says.

“We understand it comes back to a cluster of behaviours, but whether it’s genetics that makes you more able to cope or less at risk is not known yet.

“What we do know is that people who are very busy and working long hours are often also dealing with a certain amount of stress and that tends to impact on their ability to sleep well.”

Dr Banks says modern technology is also contributing to sleep disruption.

She says research shows connecting to social media via your mobile device before bed can effectively disconnect you from your body’s natural sleep rhythms.

“It is a twofold issue: the light from these devices tends to be bright and works to stimulate the senses, as can being bombarded by information before bed,” she explains.

“People need to make sleep a priority. It’s not something you should ‘squeeze in’, but rather something you need to maintain to be able to function properly and stay well.”

She says simple indicators you are not getting enough sleep are:

  • feeling tired, forgetful, inattentive;
  • being easily distracted;
  • impaired mood, responses to stress more acute;
  • needing more cups of coffee than usual to get regular jobs done; and
  • performance impairments (for example, a grower might miss sections in the paddock while harvesting or notice reduced coordination).

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 and research puts growers in the high-risk group when it comes to workplace injuries and fatalities.

According to a study supported by the Primary Industries Health and Safety Partnership (PIHSP), and conducted by the Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety at the University of Sydney and the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, the death rate for growers 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.

Acknowledging that many of these farming accidents were avoidable motivated the GRDC’s involvement in the production of the Occupational Health and Safety Managing Grain Production Safety guide. The guide (see URL below) includes information on how to implement risk controls to prevent injury and meet regulatory requirements.

The GRDC joins the Cotton Research and Development Corporation (CRDC), RIRDC,  the Australian Meat Processor Corporation (AMPC) and Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) in funding the PIHSP.

The goal of the partnership is to improve the health and safety of workers and their families in farming and fishing industries across Australia.

For more information about the partnership, visit the RIRDC website, and for more tips on reducing fatigue visit the Sleep Health Foundation website.

More information:

Toni Somes

0427 878 387;

The PIHSP is funded by the AMPC, CRDC, the GRDC, MLA and RIRDC. The PIHSP aims to drive sustainable improvements to work health and safety outcomes in agriculture, forestry and fishing through investment in research, development and education.

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