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Managing Fatigue in the Rail Transport Sector

  • United Kingdom
  • Health and safety


Whether it is caused by a medical condition, working hours, shift patterns or personal circumstances, fatigue is a health and safety risk that can often be overlooked, but must be controlled by employers.  Many well-known major accidents such as Chernobyl in 1986, the Herald of Free Enterprise (Zeebrugge ferry disaster) in 1987, and the Clapham Junction rail crash in 1988 found that human error had played a part, with operators being required to perform crucial safety-related tasks having worked excessively long hours, fatigued as a result.

The rail sector has its own sets of regulations and guidance on the management of fatigue, given the intense focus required for often repetitive, monotonous – but safety critical – tasks that drivers/ engineers/ track workers are required to perform over long shift durations (see ORR’s publication ‘Managing Rail Staff Fatigue’ , and Regulation 25 of ROGS –Railways and Other Guided Transport Systems (Safety) Regulations 2006).  Together with existing H&S regulations, employers are required to assess the risks arising from their operations, and the employee workplace, to ensure exposure to fatigue is reduced as far as is reasonably practicable, and that maximum limits are placed on the amount of time employees can work. 

Shift work is often considered the primary source of fatigue – meaning employers have a duty to consider the length of shifts; number of consecutive working days; frequency of changes in the pattern of shifts; and frequency of rest periods, to ensure that employees get sufficient rest and adequate sleep – and the ORR guidance gives significant detail on how this should be analysed, risk assessed and managed. 

It should be noted that medical conditions (such as Multiple Sclerosis, ME (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis)/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, mental health conditions or side effects from medical treatment such as chemotherapy) all include fatigue as a recognised symptom, which may impact upon the individual’s day to day physical and mental health and their performance.  If made aware of such conditions, employers may need to consider what reasonable adjustments can be made in the workplace, much might include: flexible working patterns; reduced hours or workload; working from home; or frequent rest breaks. It may also be that symptoms are exacerbated by the workplace environment such as poor lighting or temperature control, lack of natural sunlight, or noise levels.  Fatigue is especially relevant for those who operate machinery or drive for work – with HSE estimating that 1 in 5 road deaths is as a result of sleepiness.  It is also increasingly on the radar of the regulators – with ORR routinely carrying out human factors assessments and inspections to ensure that shifts and working hours are being managed appropriately.  All sources of fatigue must therefore be considered, assessed and addressed by employers, in order to ensure they do “all that is reasonably practicable” to manage the risk.

For more detailed information please see our previous article: How to manage fatigue in the workplace or contact Catherine Henney.