Demanding schedules are certainly no new phenomenon in the modern workplace. Shift work, particularly at night or in rotation, presents a set of occupational hazards that are often perceived as unavoidable. However, recognizing the risks of shift work and implementing solutions to mitigate these risks is an important part of maintaining a safe work environment that facilitates productivity and long-term health.
Characteristics of shift work
Although the concept of shift work has existed for thousands of years, it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the factory system that this practice started being used outside of the military or seafaring. As technological advances and globalization have imposed intensely competitive pressure on businesses, the demand for shift work has continued to skyrocket in the U.S. and other industrialized countries.
According to data from the 2010 National Health Interview Survey, 29% of U.S. employees work shifts that do not conform to the regular daytime schedule, and 15% regularly work night shifts. Shift work is typically prevalent in industries that require 24/7 coverage to maintain operations, such as transportation, manufacturing, emergency response systems, and public utilities.
It has long been known that shift work can be more demanding on workers’ health and well-being than other types of work. A growing body of research has identified shift work as a major risk factor for the development or worsening of health conditions and disorders, including cluster headaches, depression, diabetes, dementia, heart attacks, metabolic disorders, musculoskeletal disorders, and general stress. These in turn can affect productivity and increase the risk of occupational injuries. Night shifts in particular are known to disrupt circadian rhythm, leading to shift work sleep disorder (characterized by excessive fatigue and/or insomnia) and, for women, a 48% higher chance of developing breast cancer due to decreased melatonin production.
Assessing the risks of shift work
Identifying the risks of shift work is the first step in improving corporate safety management, and involves determining the effectiveness of existing risk management strategies as well as identifying areas for improvement. A risk assessment should take account of the likelihood of hazards due to shift worker fatigue and determine the types of workers who may be more vulnerable to these hazards, including new hires, new or expectant mothers, and workers with preexisting conditions that may be worsened by shift work.
Every organization has a unique culture, and every occupation a unique set of risks—there’s never a one-size-fits-all approach to improving shift workers’ health and safety. However, a combination of context-specific interventions can bring positive results to any organization, regardless of these differences.
Implementing shift work safety measures
Mitigating the risks associated with shift work is best achieved through a three-tiered approach that utilizes engineering, exercise and corporate ergonomics. Below are some of the various elements of this approach.
Limit Extended Shifts
When planning schedules, employers should consider the length and timing of workers’ shifts. Because working for longer than 8 hours at a time is known to reduce both alertness and productivity, OSHA recommends limiting extended shifts whenever possible and instead increasing the number of days of work. Workers with appropriate workloads will be more productive and less fatigued than those who are underutilized or overburdened. Ideally, employers would schedule the most demanding work for periods when workers are least likely to be fatigued.
Employers should consider increasing supervision at times when workers’ alertness is lower: during early morning hours and towards the end of long shifts. They should also ensure that supervisors are trained to recognize the signs of fatigue in their team members, which may indicate problems with shift-working arrangements.
Rotate Work Activities
Rotating cognitively-oriented tasks with physically-oriented tasks across a shift can help to relieve fatigue, especially when workers have to complete a range of activities within a single shift. Where possible, employers should schedule a variety of tasks into workers’ shifts and, if practical, allow workers to determine the order of completion.
Provide Adequate Rest Breaks
The risk of fatigue-related errors and accidents is higher during night shifts and towards the end of shifts. Providing workers with frequent short breaks can reduce these risks, especially when the work is demanding or repetitive. Ideally, workers should be allowed to exercise some discretion over when they take their breaks in order to receive adequate rest before fatigue sets in.
Provide Adequate Lighting
Light plays a vital role in regulating the internal body clock. Research reveals that exposure to medium-intensity or high-intensity lights (between 1230- 6000 lux) may help workers adapt to night shifts by increasing nighttime alertness and improving daytime sleep quality.
Improve Thermal Comfort
Extreme temperatures often contribute to the deterioration of both cognitive and physical performance. Workers in uncomfortably warm or humid environments may have difficulty concentrating on tasks and may start to fall asleep, increasing the risk of avoidable errors and accidents, whereas those in cold environments may be more likely to rush in order to complete their work and retreat to warmer environments. By providing workers with localized heating/cooling devices and appropriate clothing, encouraging adequate hydration, and providing shaded or air-conditioned rest areas, employers can improve their workers’ thermal comfort and reduce the risk of errors.
Promote Healthy Lifestyles
An unhealthy lifestyle can increase the risk of ill health in shift workers. Creating a culture that embraces health-oriented behaviors such as healthy eating and regular exercise is an important step in improving workers’ well-being. As shift work disrupts circadian rhythm, it may also interfere with eating patterns, making it harder for workers to get the proper nutrients they need to stay energized during non-traditional working hours. Offering light snacks or meal options as part of employer health and wellness initiatives is an excellent way to help workers sustain their energy levels.
Improve Access to Facilities
Night shift work can prevent workers from accessing many on-site amenities that are available to daytime workers. Where practical, employers should provide night shift workers with the same access to canteens, occupational health services and other amenities as daytime workers.
Collaboration can help increase alertness and reduce social isolation among workers. Employers should encourage interaction by arranging for workers to collaborate in pairs or small groups. If workers must work alone or in remote locations, employers should ensure that workers are still able to communicate with each other by providing some form of communication device.
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