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Why Do Unusual Work Hours Lead to Unusually High Incident Rates?

September 2, 2015

workplace-injuryMany of us take our work schedules for granted, the traditional 9-5ish day with weekends free. But for 10% of U.S. employees, work can mean extended hours, more consecutive days of work, or odd hours such as night shifts. These jobs exist out of necessity, whether it be a graveyard shift frontline worker at a plant that operates 24 hours per day or a firefighter putting in 20 straight hours during an emergency situation. But what effects does shiftwork have on these individuals, and are their safety risks greater compared to the rest of us?

Research has demonstrated that shiftwork can have dramatically negative physical and psychological effects on employees if not properly managed. Humans are genetically designed to be active during the daytime and asleep at night, so night shift work disrupts our circadian rhythms and causes workers to become more easily fatigued on the job. This is particularly concerning for those who regularly rotate shift times because the lack of consistency does not allow the employee’s body to get used to any sort of normal sleep schedule. Fatigue is obviously also a concern for extended hours workers who are not afforded the opportunity to sleep, or even rest, in what we consider a reasonable amount of time. Additionally, shiftwork employees tend to suffer higher levels of stress at work due to the overexertion required by the job demands.

We observe the effects of fatigue and stress in a variety of ways, some physical (e.g., sleepiness, headaches) and some mental (e.g., irritability, reduced alertness and concentration), which all depend on the person and the work context. Workers who experience these effects are then more likely to display at-risk behaviors associated with Select International's 4-Factor S.A.F.E.TM Model. No matter how safety conscious employees are, even those with lower risk safety styles are more prone to making mistakes that cause incidents when they do shiftwork or work extended hours. In fact, 7.89 of every 100 workers who sleep less than 5 hours per day because of work are injured on the job, a staggering jump when compared to 2.5 injuries among workers who sleep an average of 8-9 hours per day. So then what can managers and safety leaders do to improve safety for shiftworkers?

Although OSHA does not have a formal standard for shiftwork, it provides various guidelines for organizations to monitor employee safety and can fine companies for negligence concerning known risks on the job site. To avoid fines for safety violations, OSHA will assist organizations in conducting a hazard analysis for shiftwork environments so that the greatest dangers on the job site are identified and safeguarded. Foremost, employers are to minimize the use of extended shifts unless necessary, in which case managers should give workers extra breaks and times of rest to prevent fatigue.

Furthermore, extended shifts should not be maintained for more than a few days at a time, particularly when the job consists of tasks that require much mental or physical exertion. In addition, managers and safety leaders who are trained to recognize when an employee is displaying symptoms related to fatigue and stress will be better able to monitor employee safety, which will result in a reduction in safety incidents.

Employers could also proactively address this issue by assessing their employees’ personal safety styles in order to identify the safety blind spots that can further increase the risk of a safety incident, given the already high potential for incidents to occur. For example, an employee who tends to have low Awareness of Surroundings as part of their personal safety style is likely to have a greater risk of injury compared to a co-worker who is fatigued but naturally has high levels of Awareness.

All employees deserve to work under safe conditions, and given the extreme nature of shiftwork, we must pay special attention to these workers to maintain their safety.

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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.