Do you have shift workers at your business? As our society increasingly wants everything “now,” 24/7 business schedules have become more common. From the construction and transportation industries to healthcare and hospitality, more and more businesses have employees working what’s commonly defined as “shift work,” that is, work outside the hours of 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Shift work may take place in the evening, the early morning or the middle of the night. Overtime or extra-long workdays are also considered shift work.
Shift workers’ schedules generally “rotate” around the clock. In other words, they might work from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. for a week, switch to a midnight to 8 a.m. shift the next week, and then to a regular day shift the third week.
Dangers of Shift Work
While scheduling employees  on shifts might help your business be more competitive, it can also backfire on both your business and your employees. A majority of night-shift workers (62%) get inadequate sleep, according to the National Safety Council , because they have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
There’s even a recognized illness called shift work disorder , according to the National Sleep Foundation , that affects up to 10% of U.S. shift workers. Symptoms can include sleepiness, insomnia, headaches, depression, irritability and trouble concentrating. In the long term, shift work can contribute to chronic health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity and anxiety.
Your business also faces risks when employees work shifts. According to OSHA :
- Worker accident and injury rates are 18% greater during evening shifts and 30% greater during night shifts than during day shifts.
- Working 12 hours per day is associated with a 37% increased risk of injury.
- Lost productivity related to fatigue costs employers more than $136 billion a year in productive work time.
Managing Shift Employees Safely
Unfortunately, sometimes shift work is unavoidable. How can you make it safer for both your employees and your business? Here are some tips.
- Keep long work shifts and overtime to a minimum.
- Keep consecutive night shifts to a minimum.
- Don’t change shifts too quickly. Give employees at least 48 hours off between shifts.
- Avoid alternating several days of work with several days off.
- Rotating shifts clockwise gives employees more time to get used to new schedules. In other words, rotate from day shift to afternoon shift to night shift and back to day, as opposed to rotating from day shift to night shift to afternoon shift to night shift, etc.
- Try to give shift workers weekends off so they have some time to spend with friends and family on a normal schedule.
- Keep shift schedules predictable so workers can plan ahead. Don’t make sudden, surprise changes to the shifts. Encourage employees not to switch shifts.
- Adjust shift length to the workload. For example, heavy physical labor, monotonous work, or intense mental work could be done in shorter shifts.
- Keeping the environment cool and brightly lit helps employees stay awake during shift work.
- Monotonous sounds (like machinery) or total quiet can put shift workers to sleep. Play upbeat music to keep them alert.
- Provide plenty of breaks. If employees do repetitive physical work or heavy lifting, brief hourly rest breaks can help muscles recover. Other shift workers may benefit from enough time to take a quick walk outside or do some stretches or calisthenics.
- Make shift work voluntary. Most shift workers never acclimate to the night shift because they revert to a daytime schedule during days off. You can entice employees to volunteer for night shifts by paying a premium for these hours.
- Watch for signs of sleep deprivation in shift workers, since they generally won’t recognize the signs themselves. Warning signs may include:
- Irritability or mood changes
- Poor personal hygiene
- Making more mistakes
- Lapses in judgment
- Dozing off
If a worker simply can’t acclimate to shift work, don’t force it. Otherwise, you could be putting both your employee and your business at risk.
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