Every night more than 2 million Americans punch the clock to start their day, working overnight shifts to keep the economy moving. Unfortunately for these workers, their irregular schedules create severe sleep and concentration problems that put them at high risk for injury. The Centers for Disease Control recognized the dangers shift workers face and recently issued suggestions to promote a safer workplace.
What Is Shift Work?
Shift work is any work that occurs outside of normal business hours, typically from 8 A.M. to 5 P.M., though most shift work is done between 10 P.M. and 8 A.M.
Employees who perform shift work can have a variety of different schedules. Many work a traditional 4 or 5 day work week, with the same schedule each week. Others operate on a flexible schedule, where the hours remain the same, but the days on and off change from one week to the next. The type of shift work that is most problematic involves workers on a rotating shift, working some overnight shifts, some day shifts, and some evening hours in a given pay period.
What Dangers Does Shift Work Pose?
For a workers compensation lawyer in Chicago, shift work is a warning sign for potential on the job illness and injuries. Both the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, as well as the Centers for Disease Control argue that shift work poses serious long term health and safety risks for employees. The risks include:
The biggest risk, as seen by a workers compensation lawyer in Chicago, is the risk of injury. An employee who works overnight is deprived of the body’s natural sleep cycles, or circadian rhythms. The body is restless and unable to get the sleep that it needs during the middle of the day, so workers come to work fatigued.
Even workers who have experience in overnight shifts, including ICU doctors, have significantly less cognitive function than their counterparts during the day. A lack of focus, combined with reduced function, contributes to slower decisions and sluggish reactions. What might have been an avoidable accident during the day, becomes a claim for a workers compensation lawyer in Chicago at night.
In 2007, the World Health Organization issued a study that labeled shift work a Level 2 Carcinogen. Since then, numerous studies have been done about the increased risk of cancer for employees involved in shift work.
The first study, from the National Institute for Public Health in the Netherlands, found a direct link between the irregular sleeping patterns of shift workers and breast cancer. The study exposed mice to the same light conditions as shift workers, and found the mice exposed to the inverted light conditions of workers who are awake at night and asleep during the day were at a statistically significant higher risk for breast cancer.
Further studies indicated a potential link between shift work and prostate cancer, but the results of that study are still new and have not been retested.
Shift workers represent a small, but critical part of the labor force, especially in manufacturing, shipping, and emergency services. It is unlikely the government or a workers compensation lawyer in Chicago will succeed in eliminating the practice altogether, but there are things companies can do to limit the dangers.
- Shift Adaptation—The practice of shift adaptation allows employees to become used to the different sleep patterns of shift work over a period of time. Rather than immediately rotating from overnights to day shift and back, employees ease into the change over the course of a week or two.
- Mandatory Rest Periods—As it stands, employers are not required to give employees extended rest periods when adjusting to a change in shifts. For those who work on rotating shifts, a mandatory 36-48 hour break would allow the body some time to adjust to the new hours, so employees enter the workplace refreshed.
- More Frequent Breaks—A workers compensation lawyer in Chicago will note that many workplace injuries are the result of inattentive or fatigued employees. More frequent rest and meal breaks would allow employees to rejuvenate their bodies and minds.
- Company Oversight—OSHA and the Department of Labor are pushing for employers to increase oversight of employees doing shift work. Supervisors would be responsible for monitoring fatigue and performance to encourage a safe workplace.
- Staffing—Overnight shifts are hard to staff, and many companies work with only a skeleton crew. When an employee leaves, the rest of the shift must bear the burden of the absence, until the position is filled. OSHA recommends companies increase the total number of workers doing shift work, so the burden is more evenly divided, and employee fatigue is less pronounced.
Shift work is a potentially dangerous working condition that can lead to serious workplace injuries, and companies who do not provide adequate safety protocols must be punished.