Irregular Schedules, Shift Work Associated With Increased Safety Risks
While a round-the-clock production schedule can help employers remain competitive in the marketplace, it can also present numerous health and safety risks for employees. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, employees who work overtime, shift schedules, or other nontraditional work shifts experience poorer general health, increased injury rates, more illnesses, and increased mortality. In addition, irregular work schedules have also been associated with unhealthy weight gain, increased alcohol use, and increased smoking.
Currently, there is not a specific Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard for extended or unusual work shifts. However, that doesn't mean that it should prevent employers from targeting the potential risks to health and safety found in these jobs.
Night shifts remain a cause of concern. According to research by Circadian Technologies, a research and consulting firm in Lexington, Mass., irregular and extended shift employees are particularly at risk of health and safety problems because of night shifts. Night schedules disrupt human biological functions as well as traditional social structures. This presents a number of challenges for employees from diminished performance to specific work/life balance issues.
Researchers also noted that extended-hours workers typically get less sleep and poorer-quality sleep than their day-only coworkers. This builds up and creates a chronic cycle of fatigue. According to the report, that fatigue supersedes a worker's training, skills and experience, which creates an environment that's more conducive to workplace accidents.
According to OSHA, society is oriented toward traditional daytime work hours, and work at night will often intensify fatigue and reduce alertness. Workers generally will not acclimate to night work, and sleep patterns will generally be disrupted so the nonwork periods do not provide full recovery, resulting in sleep deprivation. Studies suggest that it can take up to 10 days to adapt to a nighttime work schedule.
Fatigue is a message to the body to rest. It is not a problem if the person can and does rest. However, if rest is not possible, fatigue can increase until it becomes distressing and eventually debilitating. Some examples include weariness; sleepiness; irritability; reduced alertness; lack of concentration and memory; lack of motivation; increased susceptibility to illness; depression; headache; giddiness; and loss of appetite and digestive problems.
Use strategies to reduce hazards. Despite the fact that the number of employees in the United States working irregular and extended shifts continues to grow, health and safety experts say that employers can lessen the risks associated with these jobs by implementing solutions to their comprehensive ergonomics programs.
According to OSHA and the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety, employers should:
--Limit the use of extended shifts and increase the number of days employees work.
Studies have shown that working shifts longer than eight hours will generally result in reduced productivity and alertness. Additional break periods and meals should be provided when shifts are extended past normal work periods. Tasks that require heavy physical labor or intense concentration should be performed at the beginning of the shift, if possible.
According to the CCOHS, employers should consider the length of the rotation period -- the number of days on any one shift before switching to the next shift. Researchers said the optimum length of the rotation period has been disputed. The most common system has a rotation period of one week, with five to seven consecutive night shifts. However, since it generally takes at least seven days for adjustment of an employee's sleep patterns, the CCOHS has argued that just as adjustment starts to occur, it is time to rotate to the next shift.
Some schedule designers feel that a longer shift rotation should be arranged so that the worker spends from two weeks to one month on the same shift. However, the CCOHS said a problem occurs when the worker reverts to a "normal" day/night schedule on days off, thus, possibly canceling any adaptation. Also, longer periods of social isolation may result.
--Focus on workplace design.
Ergonomists should give plenty of attention to the work environment of shift workers. For example, good lighting and ventilation are important on all shifts. Do not widely separate workstations so that workers at night can remain in contact with one another.
--Learn to recognize signs and symptoms of the effects associated with extended and unusual shifts.
Workers who are being asked to work extended or irregular shifts should be diligently monitored for the signs and symptoms of fatigue. Any employee showing such signs should be evaluated.
--Provide ample time for rest and recovery. Make efforts, whenever feasible, to ensure that unavoidable extended work shifts and shift changes allow affected employees time for adequate rest and recovery. Extended shifts should not be maintained for more than a few days, especially if they require heavy physical or mental exertion.
--Plan for regular and frequent breaks throughout the work shift. In addition to formal breaks such as lunch or dinner, encourage the use of micro-breaks to change positions, move about and shift concentration.
--Provide employees with training.
Educate employees on the potential health and safety effects of shift work and what can be done to stop these effects. In particular, provide education in stress recognition and reduction.
December 16, 2008
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