Implications of Fatigue and Distraction Monitoring Systems

Implications of Fatigue and Distraction Monitoring Systems

Guest Post by Danny Fay

As part of my Unit 6 studies for the Diploma in Social Psychology of Risk, I am undertaking the subject of Holistic Ergonomics.  For my assignment in this unit, I have chosen to evaluate the introduction of Fatigue and Distraction Monitoring systems into mobile equipment by looking at the implications of the system on the human operators.

imageTechnologies for fatigue detection and monitoring have been increasing, and appear to be focused on a reductionist or mechanistic understanding of human beings, where physiological or performance-related indicators, such as eye and head movements are used for predicting and controlling fatigue. This approach reduces the human to an extension of the equipment they are operating and overlooks any opportunity to understanding personhood and the complex; even “Wicked”, problem that is fatigue. If an ideal solution to fatigue management existed, it must be a holistic balance, considering the person as social and fallible, rather than a collection of body movements. Although monitoring technology may have a role in tackling fatigue, It would be helpful to understand and manage the issue from a social-psychological approach before it manifests itself through impaired performance that requires a monitoring system.

Activity measurement has its roots in Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management Theory or Taylorism. Taylorism’s main objective was the optimisation of efficiency and productivity. Essentially, the human is to be treated as part of the machine, where all movements are analysed, measured and standardised to best practice. There is no understanding of personhood in Fatigue Monitoring systems, we are the sum of the individual movements our body makes and there is to be only one best way of achieving an outcome based on these measured movements. Fallibility is seen as something that needs to be managed, the human is the biggest threat to absolute efficiency. Every blink, face and head movement is captured and analysed against an algorithm that determines efficiency. The human operator is merged with the machine and is monitored in the same way tyre pressure or engine performance is monitored. The desire for ultimate efficiency remains and this desire has unintended effects on personhood and what it means to be human.

Jacques Ellul a French philosopher and sociologist wrote extensively about the desire for ultimate efficiency or “Technique” and how the relationship between technology and man or “the technological system” isolates man from nature, alienates us, and shapes society. Technique and technology are not the same. The role of Technique is to clarify, arrange, rationalise and create ultimate efficiency. Technology, then, is but an expression and by-product of the underlying reliance on Technique, whereby everything is organised and managed to function most efficiently, and directed toward the most expedient end of the highest productivity. Ellul’s issue was not specifically with technological machines but with a society necessarily caught up in efficient methodological Techniques. Ellul argues that a certain level of autonomy is essential for an ethical employment relationship, where a respect for autonomy implies recognition of employees as people, rather than simply productivity inputs. Technique denies autonomy in humans, as we become subservient to the quest for ultimate efficiency. One of the by-products of a loss of autonomy is the alienation of humans.

Karl Marx’s theory of Alienation has a view that individuals lose the ability to determine their own life and destiny. They are alienated from their true inner self, desires, and the pursuit of happiness by the demands placed on them by the socio-economic structure and by their conversion into an object by the capitalist mode of production, which views and treats them, not as human subjects, but as replaceable elements of a system of production. In applying the theory of alienation, it could be suggested that the use of a technological system takes what Karl Marx called “the commodity of human labour to an extreme”. Without understanding the context by which the system is being introduced, the monitoring of people in the workplace could be viewed as treating humans as machines where performance is being maximised and the by-product is dehumanising the person.

The myth from the implementation of these technologies is that fatigue is solved and incidents are prevented, but the discourse is dehumanising, humans cannot be understood or treated as objects or machines with the trajectory of alienation, cynicism and mistrust. When fatigue is viewed as an objective and purely scientific phenomenon and humans are reduced to body movements and data points, we are trading off our personhood and perceiving the fallible human as the problem, generating a trajectory of punishment. Paradoxically, the by products of a methodology that views humans as the problem can result in increased anxiety and stress, and a decrease in motivation and job satisfaction, potentially increasing the risk of fatigue.

When tackling the issue of fatigue, technology has a part to play. Given the complexity of the by-products of using Fatigue and Distraction Monitoring systems, it is critical that such monitoring is guided by ethical principles to consider the negative social consequences and the limitations of using this kind of technology. A holistic approach goes beyond the reductionist and Taylorist view that efficiency is king and fatigue is an individual’s problem, and would apply social-psychological methodology to the issue; giving a richer and more balanced understanding to the problem of fatigue. A holistic solution would integrate numerous elements and address different facets of the issue beyond the view that fatigue is just an individual’s problem, such as looking at patterns of work, rosters, rest breaks, monotony of work, hydration, education, a just culture and ability to self-report or raise concerns without fear of standing out. Maybe fatigue will start to make sense if we consider a holistic understanding of personhood, decision-making and risk.

8 Replies to “Implications of Fatigue and Distraction Monitoring Systems”

  1. A good piece Danny, presenting the problems with technique and dehumanising people through naive goals and motives but with destructive outcomes. The reductionist, cognitvist and behaviourist ideologies that dominate safety lead to this destructive mechanistic approach and humans become collateral damage.

  2. I love this article. As an Ergonomist I can tell you that the focus is on how technology can improve people. Aside from helping those with disabilities and disease, when it is applied in the workplace in a Tayloristic fashion it is dehumanizing. But our Forest industry revels in it. Of course to work in Forestry you have to work 12 hour shifts of monotonous work that starts at 4 am. But we don’t talk about that. I am working right now to prevent telemetry systems from being installed in a small local government fleet. Yet my opponents are preachers of efficiency and claiming it will help employees.

  3. Suzanne, the current approach to ergonomics is mechanistic and reductionist. Humans are understood as objects in a system. What is missing is all we know about humans as embodied and social beings. A long way to go before this industry has any sense of holism in practice.

  4. Often disguised as human factors but scratch the scab and the black box psychology with its festering pus of behaviour based safety and pejorative militaristic descriptors such as line of fire, eyes on path, eyes on task, situational awareness comes oozing out as it blames the victim on the carousel of culpability.

    It was promoted in the oil and gas sector via the Keil Centre and has infiltrated IOSH via Loughborough University as Occidental Petroleum and BP protect their corporate image following the Piper Alpha and Deepwater Horizon disasters.

    1. Bernard, there’s plenty of branding that masks behaviourism in the sector. Scratch the surface and you’ll find the old culprits of individualist blame and political ignorance. Indeed, any recognition of political/ethical forces at work in safety that legitimizes the ‘Freedom to Harm’ is quickly criticised as being critical of safety people. The personalisation of the occupation of safety is part of the strategy of invoking neutral innocence and therefore in action ethically and politically.

  5. Good article Danny and really highlights why a holistic approach is needed. Particularly how work is arranged and structured to minimize fatigue. Such as allowing for changes in work routine, regular breaks, opportunity for proper rehydration and proper management of health and psychological factors that may contribute to fatigue such as illness, personal stress etc. Which is not solved or addressed in taking a mechanistic approach. .I currently work in the Home and Disability Sector where fatigue is an issue given the nature of work isolation, exposure to occupational violence and the repetitive nature of the work undertaken. Unfortunately very little work has been done in this space in terms of identifying ideal work conditions and structure. it seems that the common approach sadly is to apply technology, which in my view may track fatigue but does very little to prevent it.

  6. Narelle, Safety has a long way to go before it even gets close to an holistic mindset. Just loook and listen to the lack of vision and insight at safety conferences and you might wonder why anyone goes. All cognitvist and behaviourist stuff from the dark ages.

  7. The lumpenproletariat are glued to smartphones as they negotiate traffic but try calling a number and it invariably diverts to a message bank.

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