Working Hours, Sleep, & Fatigue Forum

Abstract for Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing Sector

Working Hours and Fatigue In The Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing Sector (Extended version)

Jennifer M. Lincoln, PhD, CSP*, NIOSH Western States Division
KC Elliott, MA, NIOSH Western States Division
Laura N. Syron, PhD, MPH, NIOSH Western States Division
Michael Flynn, MA, NIOSH, Education and Information Division
Jeffrey L. Levin, MD, MSPH, DrPH, FACOEM, FACP, University of Texas Health Science Center
Mathew Smidt, PhD, Auburn University
Jerry Dzugan, Alaska Marine Safety Education Association

*Corresponding: Jennifer M. Lincoln, NIOSH WSD, 315 E. Montgomery St., Spokane WA 99207,

Key messages:

  1. Given the nature of work in the AgFF sector (in which extremely long hours often result from pressures to harvest and produce AgFF products during peak seasons), fatigue is a major factor that contributes to fatalities, injuries, and illness; however, limited research has addressed this critical safety and health issue in the AgFF sector.
  2. No regulations limit work hours for almost all workers the AgFF sector.
  3. Within the AgFF sector, there is evidence that older workers, new/young workers, im/migrant workers, and workers in small operations are at higher risk for fatigue-related injury/illness.
  4. To develop and evaluate practical interventions that reduce fatigue-related risks, researchers and practitioners cannot focus solely on educational efforts, but must also address the structural issues that affect workplace organization, cultural acceptance of long work hours and fatigue, and psychosocial factors.


Workers in the hazardous and high-risk US Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing sector (AgFF) face serious safety and health challenges related to long hours, limited sleep, and fatigue. AgFF has the highest fatal injury rate among all sectors, at 23 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers (FTEs), over 6 times higher than the all-worker rate of 3.5 per 100,000 FTEs [1external icon]. Likewise, AgFF workers are at high risk for nonfatal injury/illness, with a rate of 4.7 per 100 FTEs, compared to the all-worker rate of 2.9 per 100 FTEs [2external icon]. Furthermore, the injury/illness rate likely severely underestimates the true injury/illness burden in this sector, due to limitations in reporting and methodology of surveying employers (e.g., excluding self-employed workers, which constitute a significant portion of this workforce). AgFF stakeholders frequently discuss the long work hours and fatigue-related issues in their industries. The Second National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA) for AgFF stated that fatigue was a “significant safety issue” [3], and the Third NORA also described it as an area of [4].


AgFF sector workers often have long hours (16+ hours per day) and experience fatigue, especially during peak harvest and production seasons [5external icon,6external icon,7external icon,8external icon]. The outdoor activities, seasonality, prevalent shift work, mental fatigue factors (repetitive tasks, vibration, and noise), psychosocial factors, and small operations, make fatigue an expected—and even an accepted—part of working in this sector. The seasonal nature of AgFF work can contribute to fatigue in various ways. Light and darkness can negatively affect workers because they primarily work outside [9external icon]. Exposure to heat and cold stress can also increase fatigue [10,11]. Harvests are frequently dependent on weather, forcing longer hours when the weather is good and/or when there is impending bad weather [12external icon]. Economic and time pressures related to the harvest may result in shortcuts and/or working despite high levels of fatigue [13external icon]. Operations frequently run 24-hours per day, and shift work is prevalent in these industries, especially in commercial fishing, seafood processing, and forestry.

Workers in the AgFF sector are most often paid by how quickly they work (piece-rate) and/or the size of the harvest, leading to fast-paced work, long hours, and less sleep [14external icon, 15external icon]. Fishing vessel profits are generally based on the value of the catch minus vessel expenses and then divided into “crew shares” and distributed. This often leads to smaller crews and longer work hours for the crew who remain [3]. There are no regulations mandating rest times, watch keeping standards on vessels, or minimal levels of staffing for this sector, except for some of the largest of commercial fishing vessels [16external icon]. Likewise, seafood processing occurs aboard vessels at sea and in onshore plants, with workers frequently working 16+ hours per day, for weeks at a time [17external icon,18external icon,19external icon,20external icon,21external icon]. There is some evidence that these long work hours contribute to increased injury and illness in the industry [20external icon,22external icon]. Workers in the aquaculture industry also experience long hours and shift work, but no research has been done on its effects [23external icon,24external icon]. Among loggers, near-miss reports were more common among those reporting high level of fatigue [25external icon]. In a series of interviews with loggers in Idaho, respondents reported “production pressure, fatigue, and inexperience as the most common factors contributing to logging injuries” with “working long hours, long commutes, and few days off” as the most common stated reasons for participants feeling fatigue [26external icon]. Among farmers, durations of restricted sleep place them at risk of injury [27external icon,28external icon]. Farm owner-operators’ long working hours can impact their family members’ safety practices as well, with young children and teens experiencing increased exposures to farm work hazards [7external icon].

AgFF workers often live where they work, or commute long distances to and from remote worksites [26external icon]. Living and working in the same place means that it is often hard to truly be “off the clock,” especially for crewmembers at sea who cannot “walk off” the vessel to escape worksite stressors. Fishermen and offshore seafood processors sleep aboard vessels and may be bothered by vibration, noises, and constant moving of the working platform [17external icon]. Likewise, agricultural workers and onshore seafood processors often live onsite, and shared, onsite housing conditions can contribute to poor sleep and fatigue, especially when housing conditions are poor or cramped [18external icon,20external icon,29external icon,30external icon].

Among AgFF workers, there are disparities related to work hours, sleep, and fatigue among older workers [31external icon,32external icon], younger workers [33external icon], new workers [26external icon,34external icon], and im/migrant workers [18external icon,35external icon,36external icon,37external icon]. Much of the manual labor in AgFF is provided by im/migrant workers and other vulnerable populations [38external icon]. There are various factors beyond long work hours that contribute to fatigue-related safety and health risks. Repetitive motion, noise exposures, and whole body vibration are also prevalent in these industries and can lead to mental fatigue [23external icon,39external icon,40external icon,41external icon]. Psychosocial issues such as economic stress, anxiety, depression, and family separation for extended periods also play a part in sleep deprivation and fatigue, with these issues potentially being more prevalent among im/migrant workers [33external icon,36external icon,42external icon,43external icon,44external icon,45external icon,46external icon].


Although long work hours, shift work, and fatigue contribute to fatalities, injuries, and illnesses in the AgFF sector, little research has (a) quantified the extent to which they are contributing factors, especially on workers’ health over their life course [45external icon,47external icon,48external icon,49external icon,50external icon], (b) developed interventions for hazard mitigation, or (c) evaluated existing interventions and programs [28external icon]. The majority of the studies published on the AgFF sector focus on measuring fatigue, rather than developing and evaluating interventions. For the logging industry, multiple studies have showed a reduction in productivity for both extended shifts and second/third shifts, but with no direct measurement of fatigue [51external icon,52external icon,53external icon]. Moreover, another logging industry study evaluating caffeine intake and a comparison of shift work found that caffeine consumption can reduce risks but had “little benefit for a night of no sleep after a buildup of severe sleep debt” [54external icon]. There is anecdotal evidence that other AgFF workers use caffeine, energy drinks, etc., to “self-medicate” and manage fatigue, but this has not been studied. Another study found that access to air-conditioning was a key factor in better sleep quality when looking at housing quality of Latino farmworkers [30external icon]. A recent literature review focusing on fatigue research in commercial fishing revealed only five articles [49external icon]. However, seeing working hours and fatigue as a safety hazard, several government agencies have created materials for industry and workers addressing this issue [55external icon,56external icon,57external icon]. A study of attitudes/beliefs among Vietnamese shrimp fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrated that fatigue is a perceived risk factor, and that fishermen’s risk perceptions could be altered by knowledge/awareness interventions that could influence intent to change behavior [58external icon]. Researchers and practitioners should incorporate education on fatigue-related hazards as one part of larger, comprehensive prevention/management efforts that address the structural barriers to adequate rest and sleep.

There are significant challenges to studying fatigue in the AgFF sector, such as logistical issues involving the rural and often remote nature of AgFF work, difficulty in how fatigue is conceptualized, measured, and recorded [59external icon], as well as partnering with small businesses and part-time/seasonal employees. However, in the New Zealand forestry industry, organizations are exploring ways to measure fatigue in real time by examining worker activities and physiological metrics [60external icon]. Future research must also address the unique nature of work in AgFF, workers’ economic and psychosocial stressors (e.g., substandard housing, extended family separation), as well as the pervasive attitude that working long hours and/or with fatigue is to be expected, even valued/rewarded. Finally, more research is needed to develop practical, relevant prevention strategies and evaluate existing interventions.


The nature of these industries has oftentimes led to stakeholders’ general acceptance of long work hours and fatigue as an inevitable aspect of the job. Research that assists AgFF stakeholders in addressing this culture, and providing practical solutions to manage fatigue, could lead to a change in work organization and processes, policies, and regulations. Such changes could help prevent fatalities, injuries, and illnesses among these high-risk workers.

Page last reviewed: May 21, 2019