Manage harvest hours to avoid fatigue

Manage harvest hours to avoid fatigue

Opinion
BUSY SEASON: Harvest is a time-sensitive operation and needs to be done efficiently to maximise quality and minimise potential yield losses. But, pushing to get it done can lead to employee fatigue.

BUSY SEASON: Harvest is a time-sensitive operation and needs to be done efficiently to maximise quality and minimise potential yield losses. But, pushing to get it done can lead to employee fatigue.

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Harvest is a period of time that is synonymous with stress and working abnormally long hours.

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Harvest is a period of time that is synonymous with stress and working abnormally long hours.

Each year, farmers across Australia work tirelessly from October to January to take a hard year's work out of the paddock. It is a time-sensitive operation and needs to be done efficiently to maximise quality and minimise potential yield losses.

This year, the hay season has run straight into harvest, increasing the amount of time spent in the paddock without time off.

As an owner, you are responsible for any employees you have on-farm, including the hours they work, and their level of fatigue.

So, what does fatigue look like? Fatigue is more than just feeling drowsy. Signs include tiredness even after sleep, reduced hand-eye coordination and slow reflexes, short-term memory problems, blurred vision and a need for extended sleep during days off.

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When people are fatigued, automatic and repetitive tasks are able to be completed, but the ability to retain and process new information is impaired. This is why you can drive home fatigued without remembering what towns you drive through. But, if you are in this fatigued state and something new happens, like a kangaroo jumping in front of your vehicle, your brain can struggle to process it and the likelihood of an accident increases.

Your workplace is the same. Working fatigued greatly increases the chance of accidents. Working with large pieces of farm machinery, augers and trucks, there is a risk of serious injury or fatality resulting from accidents due to fatigue.

This begs the question; how many hours are too many when it comes to harvest? Well, it depends. According to the Pastoral Award, which covers farm employees, an employee's maximum ordinary hours must not exceed 152 hours over a four-week period - an average of 38 hours a week.

Research shows performance gains are rarely achieved from working longer hours.

More hours than this are common, with the 2018 Rural Directions Salary Survey reporting that the average time worked per week for an assistant manager was 47 hours.

Employers can ask for 'reasonable additional hours' to be worked. The definition of reasonable depends on the employee's individual circumstances, the needs of the business and what is industry practice.

There is no maximum number of hours that can be worked. Instead, Fair Work states that an employer has a duty to ensure its employees are not exposed to health and safety risks and are remunerated for their hours of work (such as paid overtime).

Research shows performance gains are rarely achieved from working longer hours, as most employees cannot work productively for more than 45 hours a week.

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This is due to the human body needing adequate sleep. Less than six hours of sleep and we can suffer mental and physical ill health, and the risk of workplace injury doubles.

Managing fatigue in your workplace starts with a good workplace culture. A culture of safety needs to be implemented by everyone in the farm business, and this won't be achieved if you, as an employer, don't practice what you preach. Do you work when you are fatigued?

Peak periods, such as harvest, present the challenge of managing fatigue. There is no 'one size fits all' solution or approach.

Ways to minimise the risk of fatigue-related injuries include:

  • Setting a maximum time for a working day or week
  • Having regular breaks based on the needs and fatigue levels of the team, not the forecast weather
  • Mixing up tasks within the team to avoid repetitious or monotonous work, or work requiring high amounts of concentration for long periods of time.

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