Researchers from Pennsylvania and a nonprofit advocacy group have issued a set of guidelines designed to help administrators of emergency medical services organizations combat fatigue in the workplace. The research team from the National Association of State EMS Officials and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center scrutinized more than 38,000 documents before issuing the guidelines, and some of the information they uncovered suggests that the problem of fatigue among EMS workers is both widespread and serious.

The documents show that most EMS workers suffer from severe physical and mental fatigue while on the job and that half sleep for less than six hours each night. Poor sleep quality and an inability to recover sufficiently between shifts was also widely reported. The research team presented their findings to a panel of experts before producing their guidelines, which were published on Jan. 11 by the medical journal Prehospital Emergency Care.

Recommendations to address the problem include limiting the shifts worked by EMS staff to less than 24 hours and making caffeine more widely available. EMS administrators are also urged to allow on-duty napping during downtime, survey their workers to keep track of their sleeping habits and fatigue levels, and provide more comprehensive training about the dangers of fatigue and what can be done to prevent it.

Workers compensation claims may be challenged when accidents and injuries are caused by or involve fatigue. Employers fearing a rise in workers compensation insurance premiums might argue that their employees were fatigued due to off-the-job activities and call their lifestyles into question, and workers who are unable to provide compelling answers to these arguments may see their claims denied. Attorneys with experience in these cases may be able to anticipate this strategy and prepare for it by gathering data about how many hours were worked by their clients and what kind of protocols were in place to address workplace fatigue.