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The Dangers of Shift Work

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Shift workers who work the night shift are susceptible to fatigue and other health problems.

Shift work refers to any type of non-daytime work shift. Night workers, those who work very late or very early and workers who have a rotating work shift are all considered shift workers. According to the American Psychological Association, almost 15 million Americans work night shifts at least some of the time, which makes them susceptible to fatigue and other problems. 

Shift work is common in many industries including manufacturing, health care, security, transportation, hospitality and emergency services. While some companies may be able to eliminate shift work depending on business needs, most of these industries will always require some shift workers. Police officers need to be available to respond to car accidents, crimes and anything else that arises during the night. If a person is injured in a car accident at night, hospital workers need to be available to provide treatment. Pilots and flight attendants need to staff the planes that carry people and shipped goods around the world. The list goes on. 

Unfortunately, shift work has been shown to cause many problems, both for workers and businesses. Shift workers are at risk of developing a number of short and long-term health problems, and because of fatigue, their work may be compromised. Let’s examine some of these risks and the ways businesses can reduce them as much as possible. 

Health Impacts of Shift Work 

You’ve probably heard that you need to sleep so your body can repair itself, and there’s definitely some truth to that statement. Sleep controls many normal body processes, and sleeping outside of normal nighttime hours can interrupt those processes. 

Your body’s natural cycle—called the circadian rhythm—is a 24-hour cycle that includes sleeping while it’s dark outside. You might think that completely switching this cycle and always sleeping during the day wouldn’t cause too much of a problem as long as you get enough hours of sleep, but this isn’t actually true. Light levels impact circadian rhythms, so workers who always work at night still face health problems associated with a disrupted circadian rhythm. 

“Our bodies and brains evolved to relax and cool down after dark and to spring back into action come morning. People who work the night shift must combat their bodies’ natural rest period while trying to remain alert and high functioning. It doesn’t matter whether they get enough sleep during the daytime […] All the sleep in the world won’t make up for circadian misalignment.” – American Psychological Association 

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) reports that body processes including digestion, secretion of adrenalin, blood pressure, pulse and body temperature are all governed by your circadian rhythm. Consequently, shift work can lead to digestive and cardiovascular problems. 

Junk food

Shift workers are more likely to consume junk food because of irregular meal times.

Those who work shifts often eat a poorer diet as well because their meal times may be disrupted. These workers also tend to rely on caffeinated beverages to stay awake. The latter can contribute to trouble sleeping later on, which is why many shift workers end up relying on sleep aids to get to sleep. 

Serious long-term health problems have also been linked to shift work. A recent study from Harvard Medical School found workers whose jobs included rotating night shifts had a higher risk of developing lung cancer and heart disease. Another study found that long-term shift work can lead to decreased cognitive performance. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) considers “shiftwork that involves a circadian disruption” to be a carcinogen and cites research that shows a higher incidence of breast cancer among flight attendants and nurses who work these shifts. 

In addition to causing a variety of health issues, working an unusual shift can disrupt a worker’s social and family life, which can increase stress. 

How Shift Work Impacts Businesses 

Shift work can disrupt the lives of workers, but if you’re not careful, it can also disrupt your business operations. Tired workers tend to not perform as well, they make more mistakes and they are more likely to be involved in an accident. 

Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising, since when we’re tired—especially over long periods of time—regular tasks can begin to feel more difficult. 

As a business, you need to take all preventative measures you can to decrease these risks related to shift work. 

Hospital, Nurses

Medical workers must often work irregular shifts.

The Best Ways to Deal with Shift Work 

The first step is to educate yourself and your workers. To mitigate a hazard, you need to fully understand it. Provide workers with information about what shift work can do to the body and what individuals can do to improve the amount and quality of sleep they get. 

Next, consider the way your business schedules workers who do shift work. More than one opinion exists about the best way to deal with shift work schedules. Some experts suggest switching shifts every few days is best because it disrupts body rhythms less and provides more normal time for social activities. Others point out that several weeks or more of the same work schedule would allow those working night shifts to adapt better. 

EU-OSHA explains that when workers do work rotating shifts, it’s better to rotate their shifts forward. This means having them work a morning shift, then an afternoon shift and then a night shift. It’s easier for the body to adapt in than direction than it is for it to adapt going backwards. 

In general, it’s also a good idea to consult with workers about their schedules to determine what works for them. Also keep in mind that trying to provide workers with a weekend helps them rest and spend time with others. 

CCOHS also recommends workplaces provide rest areas (especially when workers have long shifts) and cafeterias with healthy food options. Workers should also try to maintain a healthy diet and exercise schedule, as this can prevent digestive and other problems. 

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