Volunteering and fatigue management

11 December 2018

In our Western society we are increasingly “stealing time from the night[1]. That is, using it as a resource to free ourselves from the “time squeeze”: It makes sense to be so efficient but it comes at a cost. Our biology requires us to function according to the rhythm of the Earth’s 24-hour cycle and there are consequences for stealing time.

Fatigue is therefore, widely accepted as a safety issue across industries. Australian rail safety legislation imposes fatigue management obligations on both accredited rail operators and their rail safety workers (RSW). Volunteers working in tourist and heritage (T&H) operations are subject to the same obligations under the Rail Safety Act (2006) or the Rail Safety National Law (2012) as other RSW.

Unlike employees, volunteers are doing T&H work in their own time, and possibly after having worked in their own fulltime employment. This makes managing their special fatigue requirements more complex, particularly if volunteers are already shift workers in their mainstream employment. T&H operators and their rail safety worker volunteers therefore need to take care with managing their hours working on the railway. Shift work can have a negative impact on the time workers have to physically and mentally recover from work[2]. In addition, recovery from physically and mentally demanding tasks is usually through good quality sleep and rest2 and it is essential to allow time for this important sleep.

In previous Rail Safety News articles[3], we have talked about fatigue, its causes and effects. In the short term, fatigue can lead to a reduced ability to:

  • concentrate and avoid distraction
  • maintain vigilance
  • think and analyse problems and situations
  • make decisions
  • remember and recall events
  • control emotions
  • appreciate complex situations
  • recognise threats and risks
  • coordinate hand-eye movements
  • communicate effectively. The longer term effects on health associated with unmanaged fatigue and lack of sleep may include heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal disorders, depression, and anxiety.

Volunteers and operators should therefore pay particular attention to the factors related to work and those outside of work[4] that cause fatigue and the need to manage them. Fatigue may be caused by factors including:

  • the mental and physical demands of work
  • work scheduling and planning (for example, timing of shifts, recovery time, inadequate rest breaks)
  • working time
  • environmental conditions, and
  • poor quality sleep and sleep loss
  • social and family demands
  • having more than one job
  • travel time
  • individual factors (including health-related issues such as sleep disorders).

To reduce your risk of being involved in a fatigue related incident or accident at work, you should:

  • Comply with your organisation’s policies and procedures relating to fatigue.
  • Attend work in a fit state to undertake your duties.
  • Be aware of what might contribute to you being fatigued.
  • Understand your sleep / rest / recovery requirements and ensure you obtain appropriate rest and sleep away from work.
  • Assess your own fatigue levels and fitness for duty before commencing work (be aware that fatigue can impair your ability to make good judgements about your own fatigue). Listen to your co-workers if they raise concerns about your level of fatigue.
  • Monitor your fatigue levels while you are at work.
  • Assess your fatigue levels after work and take appropriate commuting and accommodation options (e.g. avoiding driving if fatigued).
  • Advise your supervisor or manager if you foresee or experience being impaired by fatigue that may mean you are unfit to work, for example, because of a health condition, excessive work demands, personal circumstances
  • Seek medical advice and assistance if you have or are concerned that might have a health condition that affects your sleep and fatigue.


1: Kreitzman, L. (2004). How the 24-hour society is stealing time from the night. Aeon.co: Oxford University Press. Accessed: 16 October 2018.

2: Goodsall, M. (2016). Transcript from Safe Work Australia’s Seminar on Work-related Fatigue and Job design. Present 5 September 2016. Accessed 16 October 2018. Safe Work Australia: Commonwealth of Australia.

3: Transport Safety Victoria (TSV) (October, 2014). Rail Safety News - Issue 11 PDF, 3.1 MB. 'Fatigue management and RSW: Your fatigue management responsibilities as a rail safety worker'. Accessed: 16 October 2018.

4: Worksafe Victoria (2017). Your health and safety guide to Fatigue prevention in the workplace (Edition 2). Melbourne: WorkSafe Victoria. Accessed: 16 October 2018.

Alarm clock

This article was created for Rail Safety News (RSN). Subscribe to Rail Safety News

RSN is produced by Rail Safety Victoria (RSV), a branch of Transport Safety Victoria (TSV), to help develop a strong safety culture in the tourist and heritage railway sector. Twice a year (June and December), we write technical articles and source case studies – highlighting local and international expertise and experience – to help inform safe rail operations as required under rail safety legislation.