Imelda Wong is an epidemiologist and occupational hygienist specializing in nonstandard work hours and occupational health and safety. She received her PhD from the University of British Columbia in 2012 and was the Mustard Fellow at the Institute of Work and Health from 2013-2015. In 2012, she was elected as a Director of the Working Time Society of the Scientific Committee on Shiftwork and Working Time of the International Commission on Occupational Health and has remained as a Director. Dr. Imelda Wong joined the On the Move Partnership in August 2015 as an affiliated post-doctoral fellow.
I understand that you are an ORISE Scholar at the Centres for Disease Control / National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health (CDC/NIOSH). Can you tell me about the work you have been doing at NIOSH over the past few years?
I joined the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) as an Oakridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Scholar from 2015 until 2019, and have recently been hired as a full-time Federal employee, which is not an easy task for a non-American citizen. NIOSH was created in 1970 by the Occupational Health and Safety Act as a research agency to provide resources for employers and workers to create safe and healthy workplaces. My work with NIOSH has centered on occupational sleep-related fatigue and I have had the opportunity to work on several related projects.
During my first year as an ORISE student at NIOSH, I received funding through the National Occupational Research Agenda for a project to identify determinants of fatigued driving among Oil and Gas Extraction (OGE) workers and to test the effectiveness of two real-time fatigue detection monitors in reducing the incidence of fatigued driving. Transportation incidents are the leading cause of death in the U.S. OGE industry, resulting in over 40% of all workplace fatalities. The motor vehicle fatality rate in this industry (7.6/100,000) was almost nine times that for all industries, and second only to that in the transportation, warehousing, and utilities industry (9.3/100,000) during 2003-2009(Retzer et al., 2013). Nearly every worker in the OGE industry drives as part of their job. Well sites are often in remote locations, requiring workers to drive on rural roads which may lack safety features such as lighting, guard rails, and adequate road grading. Workers travel long distances from their homes to work sites and between work sites, putting them at increased risk of fatigue and motor vehicle crashes. In addition, OGE work is physically demanding, repetitive, and often conducted in all weather conditions. Long hours and shiftwork are typical; 12-hour shifts for two or more consecutive weeks are common. While it is speculated that these factors (i.e., commuting practices, job tasks, time on task, working hours, consecutive shifts, seasonal effects) may increase the risk for fatigue and motor vehicle crashes, limited research has examined this among OGE workers.
My work through the Working Time Society (WTS) focuses on the health and safety impacts of non-standard working hours. This is especially relevant for mobile workers, as they rarely work “9 to 5” jobs. I recently was a guest editor of the journal, Industrial Health, for a special issue Industrial Health (Vol 57(2), March 2019) commissioned by the Scientific Committee on Shiftwork and Working Time of the International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH) to address health and safety risks associated with nonstandard work hours. This series of papers provides international consensus statements regarding the current state of research, guidance for effective interventions to mitigate adverse outcomes from nonstandard working hours, and suggestions for future directions. The series includes a paper I wrote, “Working Time Society consensus statements: A multi-level approach to managing occupational sleep-related fatigue” which focuses on a multi-level approach at mitigating work-related fatigue.
As part of the COVID19 response, many of us are part of a special Emergency Operations Center to provide information and guidance for employers and workers during this pandemic. We are working with colleagues from all divisions and disciplines across NIOSH to tie into the CDC efforts to protect workers from COVID-19. Through this work, I have published several blogs and fact sheets related to working hours and fatigue in this crisis, listed below.
- Science Blogs
- Fact Sheets – What Workers and Employers Can Do to Manage Workplace Fatigue during COVID-19 https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/managing-workplace-fatigue.html
- Interim training: What Workers and Employers Can Do to Manage Workplace Fatigue during times of crisis (in progress)
You recently helped organize a forum on “Working Hours, Sleep & Fatigue.” Can you tell us about the objectives and findings of this forum?
In September 2019, I co-hosted the inaugural NIOSH, “Working Hours, Sleep and Fatigue” forum. The purpose of this forum was to develop an industry-specific approach in the United States that identified research gaps and needs, effective mitigation strategies, and future directions for research around working hours, sleep, and fatigue. One of the broad preliminary findings is that there is a wide range of information across different industries. Some industries, like transportation, have a well-established history of fatigue-risk research and management strategies, whereas there is less information among agriculture, forestry and fishing. We are still refining our final messages which will be published in a special themed issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
At the Working Hours, Sleep and Fatigue Forum, were there any findings that may be of interest to researchers studying work-related mobility?
Yes, at the Forum we had a session dedicated specifically to vulnerable workers which included im/migrant workers and the challenges they face specific to unpredictable and long work hours, and fatigue. Issues raised include how to provide effective messaging (e.g. delivery method, language) to this group of workers to help recognize the risks associated with nonstandard work hours and strategies to stay safe and healthy. Another issue raised was, in the bigger context, is this a priority or are there other more pressing issues to be addressed with this group of vulnerable workers. An extended abstract of this discussion session is available on our website here.
Fatigue-related health and safety concerns for a mobile workforce were also a significant source of conversation among researchers from other sectors such as Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing (AgFF), Transportation, Warehousing and Utilities (TWU) and Mining sectors.
A full manuscript is currently being developed and will be published along with other papers from the Fatigue Forum in a special themed issue of a scientific journal coming soon.
What are the next steps for your research?
I am excited to be working as Coordinator of the newly created Center for Work and Fatigue Research (CWFR). This is one of eight national centers at NIOSH focused on specific topics related to worker health and safety. This new virtual Center will expand our work by building on existing partnerships, creating new collaborations, and focusing on industry-specific activities to address and mitigate workplace fatigue.
My current focus is to ramp up the CWFR, which will include initiatives to develop educational modules and informational materials on fatigue mitigation strategies tailored for different industries. We will expand our messaging from prescriptive work hours and sleep hygiene, to using a more holistic fatigue risk management approach. Given that there are many sources of fatigue that can vary among individuals and organizations, there is no one solution to fit all situations and it requires a “shared responsibility” between employers and workers to determine the best fit for their situation.
Will work-related mobility be considered as part of the Center for Work and Fatigue Research?
Most definitely. Many workers in sectors such as Mining and AgFF commute long distances to their worksite, or are stationed at remote sites for long periods of time. There are concerns about long commuting distances relate to drowsy driving and fatigued workers, increasing the risk of fatigue-related incidents which are not just confined to the workplace. The impact of fatigue is not only confined to workers’ health and safety but also to that of their co-workers, their families and the general public. You can read more about that in my blog, “Work-Related Fatigue Reaches Beyond The Workplace.”
Communal housing for workers who are stationed at remote locations for long periods of time may not be the most ideal situation to obtain good sleep. For example, there may be many people housed in the same structure, making it difficult to sleep when there is constant noise in the background. Often times, this communal housing is located at extreme latitudes, where long exposure to light and darkness can lead to circadian disruption and impaired sleep. For some, such as those who work in locations where leaving the physical workplace is not feasible (e.g. fishing vessels, remote areas), there are no opportunities for them to disconnect from the pressures of work and seek other social support, which can lead to work-related fatigue. While these work conditions are widespread and longstanding, little research has been done to examine specific fatigue mitigating strategies among this workforce, and their unique working environment, to improve worker health and safety. This will be an area where the Center for Work and Fatigue Research will concentrate its efforts.
Many thanks Imelda. We will look forward to the formal launch of the Centre’s website and post the link here when it comes available.
Retzer KD, Hill RD and Pratt SG (2013) Motor vehicle fatalities among oil and gas extraction workers. Accident Analysis & Prevention 51: 168–174. DOI: 10.1016/j.aap.2012.11.005.
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