Innovative new centre to tackle fatigue-related injury

Professor Shantha Rajaratnam Thousands of Australians will be spared from injury by the work of a new research consortium charged with alleviating fatigue and boosting productivity.

Launched today at Monash University, the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Alertness, Safety and Productivity is an alliance of technology companies, academics, regulators and employers joining forces to develop cutting-edge new devices and systems that help protect workers and drivers from fatigue.

Monash University will lead the consortium, which will build on Australia's strengths in sleep and alertness research by bringing together expert knowledge, state of the art technologies, and key industry and academic partners.

The centre, established with a $14.48 million contribution over seven years from the Australian Government, is the first of its kind internationally to tackle the growing problem of sleep disruption with practical multidisciplinary projects driven by those who will develop and utilise the technology.

Research Program Leader, Professor Shantha Rajaratnam from the Monash School of Psychological Sciences, said the consortium would develop tools that measure alertness accurately, predict critical lapses, and intervene before poor alertness impairs productivity and safety.

"Through the discovery of new biomarkers of alertness, we will be able to create new devices that test a worker's sweat or saliva for these signals, before operating machinery or getting behind a wheel. An accurate, real-time alertness test such as this could be life-saving," Professor Rajaratnam said.

Research will also focus on developing dynamic lighting systems that can reset the body clock and directly activate the brain to improve alertness and performance. These smart lights could be personalised for individuals or used office-wide to predict when a person's alertness is starting to wane.

"Carefully­ timed light exposure, potentially in the blue short-wavelength range, could give these workers a boost in alertness to get through their shift, feeling clear­headed and up to the job," Professor Rajaratnam said.

The group will also work to better identify and treat people at risk of sleep disorders like insomnia or sleep apnea.

"Sleep disorders are highly prevalent in our society - but current tools to detect and manage many of these disorders are limited and we have no way of identifying which individuals are at most at risk of so­ called alertness failure," Professor Rajaratnam said. "By identifying the vulnerable individuals, we could develop targeted treatments, vastly improving safety and performance of workers."

Almost 10,000 serious workplace injuries and more than 25,000 serious road crash injuries are caused by poor alertness each year. The cost to the Australian economy is substantial-over $5 billion a year in lost productivity and healthcare costs, and over $31 billion a year in the loss of healthy life.

Chief executive of the CRC Anthony Williams said never before have we seen such a dynamic approach to solving the issue of fatigue and its damaging effect on workplaces and our roads.

"With our 24-hour society, more Australians are working shifts or getting less shut-eye, and suffering serious sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea. The impact on alertness has a worrying knock on-effect for workplace productivity and injury statistics," Mr Williams said.

"We're planning on turning that around with a range of personalised, state-of-the art tools that will improve alertness, boost performance and make our country safer."

The consortium has the audacious goal of reducing injuries by 9000 a year by 2028, saving the health system almost $2 billion in costs arising from fatigue-related injuries. Focusing on monetary benefits alone, the CRC is projected to deliver public benefits valued at more than $196.5 million over 15 years.

The CRC brings together 26 diverse organisations, among them large multinationals, small Australian technology companies, universities, regulators, insurers, policy agencies and employers.

Research nodes are located in SA, NSW and VIC, with an integrated industry placement program helping to build capacity amongst young Australian researchers and companies.