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How Do Breaks Affect Employee Safety?

June 17, 2015

breakSummer is officially upon us and with that comes the heat, particularly in places like Texas where we will see temperatures in excess of 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity. As a grad student, I enjoy summers because I get a little free time and can work from home more. For many employees out there, summer means working all day in extreme conditions. But are these individuals afforded the appropriate down time during their shifts to avoid negative safety outcomes?

Taking breaks at work is critical to productivity, yet ironically in many organizations employees don’t do this for a variety of reasons, such as wanting to be perceived as hard workers, or even because their organizations or supervisors don’t allow them to have breaks. We define breaks in two general ways:

  • Short rests (usually around 15-20 minutes) that are allowed once or twice during a normal shift or business hours and count as paid working time
  • Meal periods (usually 30 minutes to an hour) that are generally not paid by the employer for hourly paid employees

Short rests are fairly common in industry, but shockingly less than 20 percent of U.S. workers take an actual lunch break in favor of eating at their desks/stations while they work, or even skipping lunch altogether. I cannot overemphasize that culturally we need to change these practices. Not just for the laborers who work outside or in extreme environments like I described above, ALL employees should be taking regular breaks while at work. Even those who work indoors and in office settings can benefit from giving their brain a rest for a few minutes.

Interestingly, OSHA provides no federal guidelines for organizations to provide employee breaks. In fact, the only federal law that speaks to this is the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which merely defines work breaks and does not mandate that organizations give employees any breaks at all. Furthermore, only 22 states have laws currently in place to enforce guaranteed break times for employees. Knowing this, I applaud the companies out there that have provisions for employee breaks in their policies.

From the organization’s perspective, work breaks should be standard practice. Research has consistently demonstrated that employees who take regular breaks perform better than those who don’t. Beyond this, breaks can have a big impact on workplace safety. Employees who have worked long hours without at least a short rest, aside from the potential negative physical outcomes of overexertion or prolonged exposure to the elements, are likely to be less aware of their surroundings and less cautious because they are cognitively drained, which as we know from the S.A.F.E. model of SafetyDNA can greatly increase their risk of causing an accident and injuring themselves on the job.

Managers and safety leaders should take some time to ensure that your companies’ break policies give employees the time they need to relax, recharge, and get away from the sun or hazardous materials (when applicable) so that they can maximize their output potential and reduce safety risks. Even more importantly, talk to your employees to see if they are actually using the break times you provide, and discuss the benefits of doing so. People often think that they can’t take breaks due to deadlines and production demands, but having alert and energized employees is key to meeting these goals while reducing the potential of safety incidents taking place.

safety commitment

Craig White Craig White is a doctoral student in the industrial/organizational psychology program at Texas A&M University. His research domains include selection test development, training, and team processes and performance. He has been closely involved in applied safety and health research projects at the Michael E. DeBakey VAMC Health Services Research and Development CoE in Houston, TX.