One out of five workers in developed nations doesn’t enjoy the luxury of sleeping at night. Policing, medical care, and specialized industrial and service jobs go on 24 hours a day — which means that somebody has to be out there on the graveyard shift to keep society running.
Workplace experts have studied the effects of this topsy-turvy existence on the lives and health of shift workers.
“People who work other than the standard daytime shifts face a host of challenges,” notes safety writer Barbara Manning Grimm, “including physical and mental fatigue, digestive problems, stress, and a feeling of isolation from family, friends, and the community. There’s also evidence that shift workers are at greater risk of accidents.”
There might be another, more sinister risk: Some studies show that night work raises the occurrence of some cancers, as the production of melatonin, a hormone created during sleep which suppresses tumors, is itself suppressed by staying awake. (However this is a controversial finding because other studies haven’t shown any effect between melatonin production and cancer rates).
To help employers deal with the safety issues involved in shift work, we’d recommend these guidelines:
- Explain what shift work entails. Before they take a job on the night shift, workers should have time to consider how it will change their lives. Give them a chance to think things over before agreeing to this.
- Request volunteers. Some workers would rather work nights. Maybe it lets them be home when a spouse is working so that children have 24-hour child care, or maybe they just want their days free for other pursuits. In any case, volunteers will have a more positive attitude toward the job than those simply assigned to it.
- Pay a differential. A few extra dollars in the paycheck can provide a powerful incentive.
- Light the work area brightly. Although it won’t replace sunlight, several studies suggest that bright light increases alertness. This is especially important between 3:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m., when accident rates are highest.
- Get physical. Offer an exercise break. A fast-moving game of Ping-Pong or even a brisk walk might ward off sleepiness until the shift is over.
- Schedule naptime. Allow workers to close their eyes for about 15 minutes, mid-shift. Any longer, though, and your crew can drop into a deep sleep rhythm that will make them less alert when you wake them.
- Allow time off for family functions. Night workers do have a daytime life, and letting them enjoy it will pay big dividends in morale, which usually translates to gains in productivity.