We live in demanding times. Your customers are increasingly used to next day delivery or short lead times, and lets be honest – they don’t care about how you get your service to them. They just want it now! This has increasingly resulted in employers implementing shift systems to increase capacity. This is nothing new, however it is important that you, as a business, understand that these workers are at higher risk than your normal 9-5 worker.
Why are shift workers at risk?
- Disruption of the internal body clock (circadian rhythms)
Humans have an internal body clock located in the brain which sets our daily cycle. It is responsible for waking us up in the mornings and making us sleepy at night. It also explains why we eat at similar times each day.
Our internal body clock can change gradually, but for most people it is resistant to the abrupt changes in the sleep/wake cycle that are required by shift-work schedules.
- Sleep disturbance/loss
Insufficient and disturbed sleep increases the risk of errors and accidents. When working shifts sleeping during the day is often necessary and this usually results in lighter and shorter periods of sleep, which is often more disturbed because of warmer temperatures and daytime noise at home.
- Errors, productivity and accidents
Many researchers believe it’s no coincidence that major disasters, from Chernobyl and Three Mile Island to Bhopal and the Exxon Valdez, all occurred at night; losing even one hour’s sleep when clocks change to summer time results in 20% more traffic accidents.
- Health effects
Evidence suggests that shift work increases the risk of many serious health conditions. Studies have associated night shifts with increased incidence of type 2 diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, cardiovascular disease, obesity, depression and memory problems.
In recognition of the particular risks to night workers, the Working Time Regulations include a right for these workers to receive free health assessments.
What can I do?
If your employees work shifts you should assess any risks that arise from their working pattern and take action to tackle any problems you identify.
Some control measures to consider are:
- blackout blinds in bedrooms to reduce disruption to the production of melatonin, the hormone which regulates the body clock.
- design shift patterns around a fast forward rotating system (e.g. two morning, two evening and two night shifts followed by two days off) to help prevent body clock disruption.
- better health screening for shift workers to help identify problems before they become serious.
- provide night shift workers with small, easily digestible portions of high protein, low fat, low sugar meals. Making maintaining a healthy diet less difficult may reduce the risk of obesity.
By Rachel Cuff – Risk Consultant