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Shift workers 30% more at risk from injury or ill-health

10 June 2020

RESEARCH FROM the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health has indicated that shift workers who are working night shifts are approximately 25–30 per cent more at risk of injury than those working day shifts.

The study examined five aspects of well-being including chronic fatigue, emotional reactivity, social isolation, stress; and overall health.

Researchers found that working a 12-hour rather than an eight-hour shift increases the risk of injury, again by 25–30 per cent with risk increasing evenly over four consecutive shifts.

The study found that shift workers reported higher levels of chronic fatigue, as a result of the disturbance of biological rhythms that occur as a result of shift work. Over many years the disruption of these biological and social factors, may have negative long-term effects:which is of considerable concern amidst Covid-19 with the shift patterns being extended in workplaces worldwide.

By disrupting the body clock, sleep, alongside family and social time, the disruptions can result in acute effects on mood and performance, which may lead to long-term effects on mental health: impacting both workers physical, psychological and psycho-social health as well as safety.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) have raised their concerns for healthcare workers working 12-hour shifts in critical care. 

They have urged that the risks for those working 12-hour shifts in a critical care environment during the COVID-19 pandemic should not be ignored and include but are not limited to the following:

  • Wearing PPE for long periods which is physically demanding, and can result in potential heat stress
  • Errors when donning and doffing PPE
  • High levels of moving and handling activity when positioning patients
  • Increased time exposed to patients with infection, leading to a potentially increased viral exposure 
  • The potential for errors or safety lapses caused by fatigue.

In a solution-based response to mitigate the increased risk of injury and ill-health to shift workers specifically during increased shift patterns amidst Covid-19, the RCN stated:

“Where staff are working long hours, employers should provide an appropriate level of supporting facilities such as rest areas, accommodation, access to food and drink, toiletries etc as required, to enable the safe and effective provision of services during this period.” 

Whilst IOSHs research found that shift work was associated with impaired cognitive abilities, especially after a ten-year exposure – although it also seems that these effects can be temporary and reversible.

Based on this study, and on existing best practice, IOSH researchers’ recommendations include a mixture of common-sense changes by individuals to their lifestyles and practical measures by employers to the working environment.

These changes include evaluating shift schedule design such as length of breaks and start and finish times - allow adequate time between shifts for sleep and meal preparation, providing at least 48 hours between shift changes and to provide regular (annual) health checks for shift workers and transfer them to day work if required.

For more information and guidance for employees and employers about how to mitigate the risk of shift work, the IOSH Good practice in action guide can be found here. The full report from the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health can be accessed here.