Understanding Relationship of Fatigue and D&A

drug alcohol PerthFatigue and the use of drugs and alcohol is a topic that has been discussed for over a decade from a legal perspective. Consider the following statements made in court:1

  • Regina v Randall John Harm – In 2005, a long distance truck driver was sentenced to jail as a result of causing an accident in which two people died and another was injured. The judge made a lengthy statement in which he said, “On many occasions the Courts have heard the same sad litany of explanations for the state of a driver involved in an incident or collision arising out of fatigue, not uncommonly associated with the use of drugs such as amphetamines.”
  • Workcover Authority of New South Wales v Hitchcock (2004, 139 IR 439) – A fatigued truck driver was trying to meet unreasonable delivery deadlines. He caused an accident in which a man was killed. The company was accused of “…failing to manage the risk of fatigue…” thus endangering workers and the NSW public.
  • 2003 Coroner Inquest into deaths of three long-distance truck drivers – Dorelle Pincher, Deputy State Coroner was asked to identify any common factors. The response was, “The underlying factor in all three fatalities was fatigue…Mr. Walsh died at a truck stop from Methamphetamine Toxicity and Mr. Supple had a fatal level of Methamphetamine in his blood…[and] while Mr. Forsyth tested negative to drugs [there was] a small amount of Methamphetamine found in his wallet….I note that tests of Messrs. Supple and Walsh also revealed levels of cannabis….used by truck drivers to help them sleep after they have used Methamphetamine.”

Now there are many more laws concerning drugged and drunk driving, and states like South Australia (SA) do random roadside saliva drug testing for THC, meth (speed), and MDMA (ecstasy). These laws support employer efforts to combat the use of substances through implementation of AOD policies and procedures that include random testing of safety sensitive positions. Most people know by now that drugs and alcohol impact psychomotor and cognitive functions, but one of the most dangerous side effects for people operating heavy equipment of any kind is fatigue. As the legal cases involving truck drivers show, drug-induced fatigue can lead to the deaths of drivers and innocent people using public roads.

Treating and Causing Fatigue

The relationship of fatigue and drugs is two-pronged. Employees use drugs to combat fatigue, but drug and alcohol use can lead to fatigue. Chronic fatigue impacts general health, increases the risk of injury or death in the workplace, and lowers job performance and productivity. Despite recognising the role of drugs in the trucking accidents, the Australian judges sentencing the truck drivers who caused the deaths and injuries to others laid much blame on the employers who did not following safety rules. Onsite drug testing is one step in an overall approach to workplace safety, and it should not be implemented in a vacuum. The employers of the truck drivers were faulted for setting unreasonable delivery goals and not checking driving logs to verify the drivers were following the rules.

Fatigue is more than a feeling of tiredness that can be erased with some sleep. It is an ongoing state of tiredness. Truck drivers skirting the rules, working long hours and exerting extreme physical effort, are likely to experience fatigue. Fatigue can have similar effects on the human body as drugs, including loss of mental acuity and impaired physical performance. When workers in any position (not just truck drivers) use drugs or alcohol in the belief they will combat the exhaustion, they are actually enhancing the fatigue and its effects.

Doubling the Effects

 Looking at a laundry list of the effects of fatigue is like looking at a list of the effects of drugs and alcohol. Here are just few fatigue effects to prove the point: 2

  • Difficulty concentrating or avoiding distractions
  • Problems maintaining vigilance
  • Impaired ability to recognise risks
  • Impaired hand-eye coordination
  • Increased error rates
  • Increased risk of accidents and injuries
  • Slowed reaction times

 Drugs and alcohol cause fatigue in several ways. Some slow down the nervous system, whilst others can speed it up. After an initial high, the drug or alcohol user crashes. The coupling of a high stress workload and substance use is a formula for chronic fatigue. Drug testing experts are the first to say that an AOD testing program should be implemented and managed within workplace context. It is not enough to randomly test people. It needs to be part of a larger health and wellness program that includes addressing workplace conditions and requirements.

 General health and well-being is the foundation of all the services and products Mediscreen offers employers on an Australian-wide basis. Mediscreen is a NATA accredited national provider of support services for onsite alcohol and drug testing at workplace sites.


1 Industrial Relations Commission of New South Wales. (2006, November 2). Transport Industry – Mutual Responsibility for Road Safety (State) Award and Contract Determination. Decision of the Commision [2006] NSWIRCommission (Matter No IRC 4219 if 2005).

2 WorkSafe Victoria. (2008, June). Fatigue Prevention in the workplace. Retrieved from Victorian Workcover Authority:

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