Janitors, by and large, are a hard-working bunch. They put in long hours, late at night, sometimes coming from another job or from family responsibilities, and perform physically intensive labor. Unfortunately, all of this exertion, combined with lack of regular sleep, can lead to exhaustion.

Employee fatigue can lead to a variety of consequences, including lost productivity, worker injury and even a stressful family life.

“Fatigue increases the risk of work that’s inherently dangerous,” says Matt Stoltis, a certified industrial hygienist and certified safety professional, as well as manager of health and safety with Tetra Tech NUS Inc. in Pittsburgh. “For instance, workers who are elevated need to be alert, and fatigue can impact alertness.”

Janitors who work on scaffolds for high dusting or window cleaning, or those who drive floor machines or vehicles, might be at risk, he points out.

“If your reaction time is inadequate, it increases the potential for accidents,” says Stoltis. “If you’re overly exhausted, you’ll have a harder time driving safely. The problem is, nobody knows how I feel except for me. If I’m too fatigued, I shouldn’t turn that key. It’s not worth it. The effects of an accident can be severe and life-changing.”

In addition, tired cleaners will have difficulty performing detail work, because they need a high level of concentration.

The night shift

Late nights and long hours are leading contributors to janitors’ fatigue. Part of this is because humans aren’t naturally nocturnal. Working at night can alter employees’ normal rhythms and make them more vulnerable to different stressors, says Claire Caruso, Ph.D., a research health scientist and registered nurse with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s Taft Laboratories in Cincinnati.

“The respiratory system responds differently at night than during the day,” she says. “People with asthma, for instance, have more trouble at night, which can increase their fatigue and even cause pain.”

Compounding this is the fact that many janitors also have day jobs or family responsibilities, and come to a job site already exhausted and sleep-deprived.

“If you’re working an eight-hour shift somewhere and then doing other work, it can have negative health effects,” says Stoltis. “There is plenty of literature on the effects of sleep deprivation. In extreme cases — if you go for days and days with no fruitful rest — you can see effects including hallucinations.”

Reduce the risk

Unfortunately, neither the building service contractor nor the employee can eliminate every cause of fatigue — the work is still physically demanding, and night shifts often are unavoidable. However, there are some things both can do to reduce the risk and impact of exhaustion.

Reducing the risk begins during the hiring process, says Stoltis. Applicants will need to know how demanding the work is, and the dangers it involves. Employers, on the other hand, need to know if there are any outside commitments or conditions that will impact their workers’ ability to do the job safely. While some questions about family obligations or disabilities are illegal to ask, it is acceptable to require a pre-employment physical examination in many cases, Stoltis adds.

Reducing turnover also can help, he says, because experienced workers are more used to the nighttime hours and demands of the job and are less prone to exhaustion.

“In my opinion, the human body is a remarkable machine,” Stoltis says. “If you subject it to something it’s not used to, there will be a period of time to get acclimated. There is a connection between a late-night shift and fatigue, but it’s often a short-term thing; your body will adjust to non-traditional hours.”

Once workers are hired and in place, BSCs should look at the schedules, to ensure employees aren’t expected to do more than is realistic in a given shift or week. Caruso advises BSCs plan staffing levels so that workload is evenly and appropriately distributed; expecting a cleaner to work too quickly or too intensely can lead to exhaustion before the shift is over.

In addition, BSCs and employees need to remember that rest breaks are very important.

“Breaks will actually increase productivity,” Caruso says. “Educate workers and encourage them to take rest breaks. For some tasks, it may be useful to take them every hour for five minutes, in addition to standard 15-minute breaks and lunch breaks on long shift.”

Where and how the workers take their breaks also is important.

“If you have you have a physically demanding job, you want to be able to sit and relax,” she explains. “If it’s mentally demanding, you may want to be up and around.”

Caruso suggests workers be allowed access to the outdoors during their break times, when feasible.

Also, she says, make sure workers have adequate days off — even if they want the extra work.

“One thing [employers] could do is protect recovery days,” Caruso says. “If people are working and have a day off, they could ‘protect’ those days off and not ask those workers to come in so workers can get rest.”

Mitigating fatigue isn’t just the employers’ job, however. Employees need to take responsibility for their own health and safety, especially when they do have a chance to rest.

“Workers should put a priority on obtaining sufficient sleep, eating a good diet, exercising and managing their stress,” Caruso says. “They could create a good sleep environment — have a bed that’s comfortable, block out all light, don’t drink alcohol before they go to sleep. Take the phone off hook and tell family and friends that they can’t be disturbed while sleeping, especially if they sleep during the day.”