On the night shift

Exhausted employees cost millions in accidents, lost productivity
By Jennifer Allen
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/25/2002

Since the invention of the light bulb, the human race has had the ability to be up and about, 24 hours a day. Whether it’s work or play, we can stay up all night to do more of it. But how able are we, really, to handle the consequences of our non-stop activity?

Human beings were designed to be awake during the day and sleep at night. These natural sleep-wake rhythms are ingrained in us from the day we’re born. Turning those rhythms upside down by working night shifts leaves us fatigued and out-of-sorts.

For companies that run 24 hours a day — or for those thinking of introducing additional shifts, 24-hour operations requires careful consideration of the special issues involved in operating around the clock. Compensation, overtime and benefits are just some of the policies that will need to be overhauled. Even more important are the risks that come with working through the night.

The non-stop world

At work, body-rhythm disruption translates to reduced productivity and a greater risk for errors and accidents. The infamous accidents at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Bhopal, as well as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, all occurred on the night shift.

Some people, of course, are natural “night owls,” tending to sleep and wake later than most. Not coincidentally, these people tend to handle night shifts better than self-described “morning people.” Most people fall somewhere in between extreme morning and evening types.

Statistics reflect the troubles inherent in working around the clock. The National Safety Council in the United States estimates that accidents in which fatigue plays a part cost more than $127 billion a year worldwide. The National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research estimates that in the United States alone, businesses lose more than $239 billion a year in productivity as a result of employee fatigue.

You might say: “Isn’t it simple? Night workers should go permanently nocturnal — stay up every night and sleep every day. No more changing of body rhythms.”

It’s a nice theory, but few workers want to sleep all day on their days off while their spouses, children and friends are awake and doing things. In addition, sunlight makes it physically difficult to sleep during the day, leading to poor-quality sleep and sleep debt.

But there are so many advantages to running businesses 24/7 — increased production, a greater competitive edge, better customer service, communication with companies on the other side of the globe — that those who recognize the risks have begun looking for solutions.

Dealing with 24/7

Getting the most out of 24-hour operations means minimizing the risks as much as possible to maximize the benefits.

Indeed, the strongest factor determining whether a 24-hour business will fall or fly is whether its management identifies the risk factors and takes proactive steps to correct them. Practical strategies to minimize shift work’s risks, affecting worker safety and health, ultimately benefit the bottom line.

One strategy every 24-hour operation should use is a fatigue management plan. By taking steps to reduce the fatigue that naturally occurs among night shift workers, companies reduce the danger of costly accidents, injuries and mistakes.

Such strategies need not, as some companies fear, break the bank. Around-the-clock operations have had great success with such tactics as allowing workers 10- to 15-minute rejuvenating naps during breaks, buying a small piece of exercise equipment on which sleepy workers can quickly revive, or simply allowing employees frequent small breaks instead of one or two longer ones. Of course, several combined strategies are better than one.

And if you think fatigue management is a pricey luxury, consider this: such strategies often pay for themselves if they prevent just one accident, with its associated costs for repairs, lost time and workers’ compensation — not to mention any lawsuits that might result.

Organizational changes

Fatigue management is just one of the changes a company should expect when going 24/7.

Most companies that operate more than one shift offer a “shift differential” — an increase in the hourly wage for the evening and night shifts. The shift differential is a way for companies to recognize the difficulties inherent in working at night and to attract employees to the often-unpopular late shifts. If you don’t offer a differential, you can bet your competitor down the street will.

Overtime policies are also critical to a 24/7 operation. Instead of eight hours, your shifts may now last 10 or 12 hours, depending on the schedule. A previous policy, such as four hours of maximum overtime allowed per shift, may be unrealistic for a shift that’s already 12 hours long.

Working long hours too many days in a row can cause dangerous levels of accumulated sleep debt, so you need to watch for “overtime hogs” — those who volunteer for extra shifts on their days off. Many companies set a maximum allowed number of consecutive work shifts.

10 proactive strategies for 24/7 managers

1. Incorporate coping strategies into worker training.

Help workers adjust to shift work by educating them on coping methods, such as fatigue management, nutrition and health, from day one. Shift work-specific training tools and programs are available from organizations specializing in night shift issues.

2. Educate managers too.

Supervisors will be more knowledgeable about the demands of each shift when they understand the basics of circadian (body) rhythms and fatigue countermeasures.

3. Improve work-site lighting.

Studies have shown that bright light during the overnight hours reduces workers’ feelings of sleepiness. Alert workers cause fewer accidents and errors.

4. Take steps against drowsy driving.

A fatigued worker who causes an accident on the drive home can mean a lawsuit against the employer, especially if it can be shown in court that long hours (such as a double shift) contributed to the fatigue. Encourage tired workers to call a relative for a ride or pay for a taxi home.

5. Handle overtime wisely.

Shifts longer than 12 hours should be minimized and shifts of more than 16 hours should be avoided completely. Long hours lead to worker burnout and unsafe levels of fatigue. Use an on-call sheet of workers who’ve volunteered for extra hours rather than holding workers past their scheduled shift.

6. Involve workers in schedule changes.

Selecting several schedules that will meet your production demands, then letting workers vote on the one they prefer, will ultimately improve morale, encourage co-operation and give workers a sense of ownership of the new schedule.

7. Provide work-site fatigue countermeasures.

This can be as simple as providing coffee and tea, or as complex as designating one room as the “napping room” or purchasing exercise equipment to be used for a midnight energy boost.

8. Offer healthy snacks.

Since our stomachs don’t digest food well at night, low-fat and non-spicy snacks are best. Provide fruit, fruit juice, low-fat yogurt and other healthy options alongside the conventional vending machine fare.

9. Don’t ignore the off shifts.

It’s easy for managers who work daytime hours to forget about the evening and night shifts, with the result that those workers often feel they “don’t count” or are not as important to the company. Have a manager or supervisor visit those shifts at least once a week to check in. Provide access to an HR representative during evening and night shifts at least occasionally, and don’t leave those workers out of company events and celebrations.

10. Hire night owls.

Studies show workers who describe themselves as “night people” are more successful working night shifts whereas self-described “morning people” often have more difficulty.

Jennifer Allen is publications editor at Circadian Technologies, Inc., a Lexington, Mass.-based consulting and research organization specializing in scheduling and training for the 24/7 workforce. For more information contact 1-800-284-5001 or info@shift work.com or visit www.shift work.com.

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