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Shift Workers and Workers on Night Work  

Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999
Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992

Shift Work and Night Work

Sleep loss and fatigue are some of the most significant problems for shift workers and it is important to try and maintain a normal level of sleep and rest when not on duty.

People vary in how they cope with shift work depending on their health, fitness, age, lifestyle, and domestic responsibilities– some adapt well, others do not. It is an employers responsibility to ensure that all workers – including shift workers – are able to work safely and healthily and accommodations may be necessary to take account of the change in lifestyle patterns necessitated by shift or night work.

Shift patterns and night work are additional considerations when conducting a risk assessment and additional control measures may be necessary, particularly when alertness is key to safe performance.  When shift or night work is combined with lone working, supervision is particularly important. 

New and Expectant Mothers

Where an employee who is pregnant or is nursing works nights and produces a certificate from a registered medical practitioner or a registered midwife showing that it is necessary for her health and safety not to work nights, you should suspend her from that work for the period identified in the certificate. The Employment Rights Act 1996 requires that suitable alternative daytime work on the same terms and conditions should be offered before suspending the woman from work.

See Quick Guide – Lone Workers and Quick Guide – New and Expectant Mothers

Advise for Shift Workers

The HSE has some general advise for shift workers which employers might pass on to employees:

Driving to and from work
Driving to and from work can be risky, particularly after a long shift, a night shift or before an early start. Employees should be urged to consider using public transport or taxis rather than driving; to exercise before starting the journey; to share driving if possible; to drive carefully and defensively; not to hurry; not to drive if they feel sleepy but to take a break or use the occasional stimulating drink such as coffee.

Identify a suitable sleep schedule
Most adults need 7-8 hours sleep a day. Employees should be advised that rest is beneficial even if sleep is not possible and that keeping a record of sleep patterns – for example in a diary – may help to establish the best strategies for obtaining the best quality of sleep. Different techniques involve   Employees new to shift work may try going to bed at different times, having a short sleep before the first night shift; coming off night shifts and having a short sleep then going back to bed earlier that night.  Once an employee has identified a suitable sleep schedule it is best to try to keep to it.

Make the environment favourable for sleeping
Daytime sleep is usually lighter, shorter and of poorer quality than night-time sleep. It is more frequently disturbed because of warmer temperatures and daytime noise. To help make the environment favourable for sleeping employees may be best advised to sleep in their bedroom and avoid using it for other activities such as watching television, eating and working; to use heavy curtains, blackout blinds or eye shades to darken the bedroom; to disconnect the phone or use an answer machine and turn the ringer down; to discuss thier work pattern with family and close neighbours with a view to avoiding noisy activities during their sleep time. Cool conditions improve sleep.

problems are common in shift workers due to disruption of the body clock and poor diet. Employees should be advised to plan their meals to help alertness at work and to relax/sleep during rest periods.  Regular light meals/snacks are less likely to affect alertness or cause drowsiness than a single heavy meal; choose foods that are easy to digest such as pasta, rice, bread, salad, fruit, vegetables and milk products; avoid fatty, spicy and/or heavy meals as these are more difficult to digest and more likely to make you drowsy.  Avoid sugary foods, such as chocolate – they provide a short-term energy boost followed by a dip in energy levels.  Fruit and vegetables are good snacks as their sugar is converted into energy relatively slowly and they also provide vitamins, minerals and fibre; drink plenty of fluid as dehydration can reduce both mental and physical performance but avoid drinking too much fluid before sleeping as this may overload the bladder.

Stimulants and sedatives
Shift workers often turn to stimulants such as coffee or cigarettes to keep them awake and sedatives such as alcohol or sleeping pills to help them sleep. Avoid such aids as they only have short-term effects on alertness as tolerance to their effects develops. Persistent use may also increase the risk of dependence. Caffeine is a mild stimulant present in coffee, tea and cola as well as in tablet form and in special ‘energy’ drinks. It can improve reaction time and feelings of alertness for short periods. Only use caffeine occasionally and don’t rely on it to keep you awake. If you do decide to take caffeine or other stimulants, you should consider what might happen when its effects wear off eg when you are operating machinery or driving.

Avoid the use of alcohol to help you fall asleep. Although alcohol can promote the onset of sleep it is also associated with earlier awakenings, disrupted sleep and poorer sleep quality. Regular use of sleeping pills and other sedatives to aid sleep are not recommended because they can lead to dependency and addiction.

Physical fitness and a healthier lifestyle
An unhealthy lifestyle combined with shift work may increase the likelihood of sleep disorders and sleep loss or exacerbate existing sleep problems. A good diet, regular meals and exercise can improve sleep quality, health and well-being.  Thirty minutes of exercise a day – including walking – can significantly improve your health.

Family and friends
Working shifts that differ from the routines of friends and family can leave employees feeling isolated.  Employees should be advised to talk to family and friends about the shift patterns, the problems encountered and the accommodations they can make to help.  Inviting others on a similar shift pattern to join in activities when others are at work may help with any sense of isolation.

Ways to improve alertness at work
On some shifts, such as nights and very early mornings employees may find it difficult to remain alert and this can affect performance. It may also increase the risk of errors, injury and accidents. Employees should be advised to take moderate exercise before starting work which may increase your alertness during the shift; to keep the light bright; to take regular short breaks during the shift if possible; to get up and walk around during breaks; to plan to do more stimulating work at the times they feel most drowsy; to keep in contact co-workers as this may help them all to stay alert.

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Additional Reading:

Managing Shift Work