Is shift work safe work?

As employers know all too well, managing staff to ensure adequate coverage in the workplace is a seemingly never-ending demanding task and requires balancing the needs of the workplace with a range of staff welfare considerations. This becomes even more complicated when it comes to shift work, which adds a number of specific obligations in addition to those normally imposed.

The number of shift workers in the United Kingdom workforce has gradually increased over the last 25 years, peaking and stabilising around 15% of the working population (between 3.6 and 3.8-million people) doing shift work as part of their normal working duties. Traditionally, shift work was confined to a number of industries requiring 24-hour operation. However, in an increasingly globalised economy that is steadily moving towards 24-hour operation, we have seen an increase in the types of industries where shift work is common, such as call centres and other professional services.

Relevant legislation

The Working Time Regulations 1998 (as amended) sets out some of the minimum legal requirements employers have in relation to the organisation of working time. Additionally, specific industries and sectors, such as the aviation or transport industries, may be subject to specific legislative regimes that regulate working time arrangements.

Relying on these legislative regimes, however, will not discharge all your obligations as an employer, and you will also have to comply with the employers’ general duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. Without going into too much detail, these acts require all employers to protect the health, safety and welfare of all employees at work, which includes making an assessment of any risks to employees in the workplace – which includes shift work and other working arrangements.

Although there is no specific legal definition of shift work under these provisions, it is usually taken to mean a work activity scheduled outside standard daytime hours, or a pattern of work where one employee replaces another on the same job within a 24-hour period, including night work. Standard daytime hours are taken to be any work during the day, commonly for a period of eight hours, between 7am and 7pm.

What can go wrong? The health and safety risks of shift work

Shift work, particularly when undertaken early in the morning or late at night, presents a number of health and safety issues for employees.

Firstly, shift work can disrupt typical circadian rhythms and an individual’s so-called body clock. Most humans can adapt to temporary disruptions to these, however, over time they lead to a gradual build-up of lost sleep. This gradual accumulation of fatigue affects performance of day-to-day tasks. In this regard, if you notice a drop-off in productivity or focus among employees undertaking shift work, this is a good sign to check in with them.

Secondly, medical conditions such as epilepsy or diabetes can be worsened by night shifts. If managers are aware of any employees with conditions that may be exacerbated by shift work, they should aim to schedule working arrangements with their employees’ best interests in mind.

Thirdly, it should also be noted that not all employees are equally able to adapt to the stresses of shift work and it will very much depend on how well individuals can tolerate disruptions to normal circadian rhythms. While some can function quite normally with irregular or shortened sleep-wake cycles, others will simply never adjust. Employers should pay attention to how well their employees are coping with their designated shift work, and if any issues arise, they should be accommodated.

Man with sticky notes over his eyesCircadian rhythms – what are they and why do they matter?

The human body follows daily sleep-wake cycles over a 24-hour period. These are called circadian rhythms and don’t just relate to tiredness or alertness but also include the regulation of a whole range of bodily functions, such as temperature, metabolism, digestion, blood pressure and adrenal functions. Research has shown that shift work has a noticeable impact on circadian rhythms in addition to the following:

  • Biological effects: cardiovascular/gastrointestinal disorders and increased susceptibility to minor illnesses (such as flu or colds), particularly among certain classes of workers such as younger/older workers or new/expectant mothers.
  • Psychological effects: sleep loss and fatigue, lowered performance, increased accidents and higher levels of stress.

Good practice for employers

Evidently, the health and safety consequences of shift work are significant, and employers scheduling shift work should consider the following best practice steps when doing so. These should not be taken as determinative but rather as a rough guide when managing shift-working arrangements:

  • Consider the risks of shift work and the benefits of effective management.
  • Establish systems to manage the risks of shift work.
  • Assess the risks associated with shift work in your workplace.
  • Take action to reduce these risks.
  • Check and review shift work arrangements regularly.

Disclaimer: The information provided through Legislation Watch is for general guidance only and is not legal advice. Legislation Watch is not a substitute for Health and Safety consultancy. You should seek independent advice about any legal matter.

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