Shift working...the risks, realities and resolutions

It can affect relationships, personal finances and physical health - so what should employers be doing to protect staff from the numerous risks linked to shift work?

Our free lunchtime webinar this June, if you didn't catch it, featured Steve Carr from top personal investment firm Fidelity International. He's the man behind the firm's health and safety reform, and so is excellently placed to dispense his wisdom and extensive research on the effects of shift work.

If you didn't get a chance to log in and listen live, you can listen again to his short but fascinating presentation below.


For those who are a little strapped for time or prefer to read, here are some of Steve's main points:

Which Acts actually define our duties when it comes to shift work?

  • Health and Safety at Work Act 1974
  • Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 - reg 3
  • Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1998
  • Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees Regulations 1996
  • Working Time Regulations 1998 (as amended) - you can work 12 hour shifts as long as the average doesn't exceed 8 hours over 17 weeks.

Surprisingly, little research has been done into the health effects of shift work, even though there are significant numbers of people working like this across Britain.

So far evidence suggests:

  • Shift work disrupts the circadian rhythm - the human body naturally works to a 24 hour cycle. When messed with, there can be profound effects.
  • In one study only 10% of workers said they enjoyed shift work, 70% said they tolerated it, while 20% were unable to tolerate it.
  • The older you are, the less able you are to tolerate shift work.
  • Shift work makes us less attentive, leading to more mistakes. Big disasters happen in early hours when people are tired. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Exxon Valdez.

Shift work is linked with certain medical conditions that may be a result of poor eating habits. Irregular eating patterns and the convenience of fast, fatty foods may contribute to this:

  • weight gain
  • coronary heart disease
  • hypertension
  • diabetes
  • high cholesterol
  • dyspepsia
  • heartburn
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Respiratory problems - asthma

One study found a link between shift work and reproductive health in women of childbearing age.

Anecdotal evidence from interviewing security officers found that with shift work:

  • More money was spent on food and cigarettes - more financial strain, erosion of relationships at home.
  • Driving home afterwards was tiring - worrying considering the lives that could be at risk.
  • Social and family pressures e.g. unable to do the school run.

The security officers were also asked if there was anything good about shift working. They said:

  • They liked not having to drive at peak rush hour times.
  • Shift pattern arrangements meant they only had to take 2 days off to get a week from work.
  • More time to spend with family
  • Reduced cost of child care (although Steve raises the point that this may still take away from sleep time).
  • They can take up hobbies etc. at off-peak times, reducing costs.
  • Some said they had time to take additional casual work to boost income (this is strongly discouraged - time off should be used to get circadian rhythm back).

Considering the risks so far, what can employers do to protect shift workers?

  • Eliminate shift work entirely - something that is not feasible for most organisations.
  • Shorter, more frequent shifts - less flexible for holidays, takes away some of the perks of shift work.
  • Driving ban between 3-5am when workers are most likely to be tired.
  • Reduce boredom - find incentives to keep workers occupied.
  • Travel subsidies to discourage car use.
  • Limit recruitment to smaller area - may reduce quality of candidates.
  • Health monitoring - identify risks early.
  • Subsidised healthy food options.
  • Subsidised anti-smoking measures.

Steve's top take away: Shift work is a hazard to employees, their families and anyone else effected by operations.

If you need health and safety advice, you may benefit with a consultation with one of our experts. You can find out more about our consulting service here >>

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