Special Topics in Safety Management

Safety Tips for Shift Workers

Shift workers pose special safety hazards. Here’s a list of strategies to make their working lives as safe and normal as possible.

Tonight, when it’s dark and quiet and you’re looking forward to some well-deserved rest, give a thought to those not enjoying the same moment.

That’s because some 20 percent of the workers in developed nations do not share the luxury of sleeping at night. Policing, medical care, and specialized industrial and service jobs go on 24 hours a day, which means somebody has to be out there, on the graveyard shift, keeping society running.

Because so many people do shift work, workplace experts have considered what effects this topsy-turvy existence has on their lives and their health.

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“People who work other than the standard daytime shifts face a host of challenges,” notes safety writer Barbara Manning Grimm, “including physical and mental fatigue, digestive problems, stress and a feeling of isolation from family, friends, and the community. There is also evidence that shift workers are at greater risk of accidents.”

There may be another, more sinister risk, say scientists. Some studies show that night work raises the occurrence of some cancers, as the production of melatonin, a hormone created at night during sleep which suppresses tumors, is itself suppressed by staying awake. (This is a controversial finding in that other studies show no effect.)

To minimize whatever risks there are, BLR’s publication, OSHA Required Training for Supervisors, recently published a set of tips for employers on dealing with the issues shift work raises. Here’s some of that advice:

Explain what shiftwork entails. Before they take a job on the night shift, workers should have time to consider how it will change their lives. Give them a chance to think it over before agreeing to do it.

Request volunteers. Some workers would rather work nights. Maybe it lets them be home when a spouse is working, so children have 24-hour child care, or maybe they just want their days free for other pursuits. In any case, volunteers will have a more positive attitude toward the job than those simply assigned to it.

Pay a differential. A few extra dollars in the paycheck can be a powerful incentive.

Light the work area brightly. It won’t replace sunlight, but several studies suggest that bright light increases alertness. This is especially important between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., when accident rates are highest.

Get physical. Offer an exercise break. A fast-moving game of Ping-Pong or even a brisk walk may ward off sleepiness until the shift is over.

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Schedule naptime. Allow workers to close their eyes for about 15 minutes, mid-shift. Any longer, though, and your crew can drop into a deep sleep rhythm that will make them less alert when you wake them.

Allow time off for family functions. Night workers do have a daytime life, and letting them enjoy it will pay big dividends in morale, which usually translates to gains in productivity.

These are things you can do. In tomorrow’s Advisor, we’ll give you a list of suggestions to pass on to workers, so they can help themselves make life as normal as possible.