More than 15 million people in the United States regularly work late in the evening, at night, or on rotating shifts. These late hours are essential in a wide range of industries, as diverse as all-night eateries, hotels, fire departments, industrial plants and factories and television stations.
Health and safety consultants have pointed out a number of problems that develop for workers on these shifts, affecting both safety conditions at the workplace and the employee’s overall health.
Circadian Rhythm and Sleep
Working when the rest of the country is enjoying dinner or may be off to bed has decided effects on the life of a shift worker, especially noticeable in his sleep pattern. People who work late afternoon into the evening, called swing shift workers, tend to get the most sleep of all shift workers. Night workers, those working 11 p.m. or midnight until early morning, get the least.
Lack of sleep affects a person’s circadian rhythm. The human body operates on a 24-hour cycle. The temperature of the body, level of alertness, blood pressure, urge to eat and release of hormones are all part of this cycle. When the normal cycle gets disrupted, workers and healthcare providers have noticed a number of problems, including:
The human body is meant to be most active in late afternoon and the early evening. That’s when a person’s metabolism is highest. The least activity and energy happens late at night. It is built into the human system to feel more energetic at 4 p.m. and more sleepy at 4 a.m.
In addition to the overall affect on the human system, each individual has a personal circadian rhythm. This explains why some people are night owls and others are morning people. When a person matches his livelihood to his natural inclination, he feels most productive and energetic. For example, musicians who describe themselves as night owls do well when they perform in the evening. If a nurse is a natural morning person, she will feel most productive when she chooses the early morning shift at a hospital.
Circadian Rhythm and Safety
The important thing about circadian rhythms, both general and individual, in relation to workplace safety is how alert a worker feels during his shift. It’s just common sense that a person is more aware of his surroundings when his rhythms and the body’s activity level is high. The more aware he is, the more able he is to take the proper safety precautions. When his body’s activity level is low, his alertness and attention to detail is negatively impacted.
Swing shift and night shift workers are moving against the body’s natural inclinations with their hours of employment. Any amount of extra fatigue, from insomnia or being extra active physically or mentally will give his alertness levels a double whammy. Studies support this, showing an increase in the number of accidents that occur at night.
Chronic Health Problems
Many workers can’t take the effects of prolonged shift work and move to jobs that have more regular hours. Chronic digestive problems, including ulcers, constipation, and acid reflux, are among the most common reasons workers give for moving to a “9 to 5” work setting.
Another serious problem noticed by Swedish researchers studying paper-mill employees was an increased risk of heart disease among shift workers.
Depression and anxiety are also common. Workers point to the stress of dealing with unhappy spouses and having less time to socialize.
If a worker has bad habits like smoking, drinking or using recreational drugs, shift work appears to exacerbate it.
Lessening the Impact
Few laws regulate shift work to make it easier on a person’s body. But it is to management’s advantage to care for the health of their late-shift employees. A managed plan can reduce lost-time illnesses and employee turnover.
- avoiding putting a person on a permanent night shift
- reducing the number of consecutive night shifts
- making sure workers regularly get weekends off
- limiting overtime
- keeping a regular and predictable schedule
- building in frequent rest breaks
Following these simple guidelines can go a long way toward improving the health, safety, and overall sense of well being and general happiness of your employees.
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