Are there risks to shift work?

And how can you prepare?

First published on Thursday, Jun 25, 2020

Last updated on Thursday, Jun 25, 2020

A number of studies have found that shift work and working at night can be damaging to your workers’ health.

The Working Time Regulations 1998 (WTR) should be the legal starting point when shift planning. The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 specifies that employers must not put their workers at risk from working too many hours. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (MHSWR) also lays down measures to protect your staff.

What are the risks?

The Health Survey for England 2013 and similar research, found that shift working has harmful effects.

Some shift work risks include:

Biological effects:

  • Stomach problems including pain, indigestion, and ulcers
  • Heart issues such as coronary heart disease and hypertension
  • Reproductive complications for females who work shifts
  • Existing illnesses like diabetes and epilepsy get worse
  • Increased likelihood of cancer

Psychosocial effects:

  • Disturbed sleep which increases the risk of mistakes and accidents
  • Dependence on sleeping pills or stimulants
  • Heightened stress

Personal effects:

  • Challenging family life
  • Isolation because of missing out on social functions

How to assess the risks

It’s difficult to properly assess the risks of irregular work schedules without taking a hard look at your shift planning. You must ensure that employee schedules comply with all the legislation that safeguards shift workers.

You have an obligation under the MHSWR to not only assess risks but to make reasonably practical efforts to remove or manage those risks. A vital aspect of controlling shift work risks is to make sure you plan your work rota calendar to take account of how many hours your staff work and how these hours are allocated.

If you’d like to know more about work risk management, read The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) publication — ‘Successful Health and Safety Management’. You can use this approach as guidance to minimise threats when arranging shift schedules.

To assess shift work risks, you should:

  • Collect and evaluate information about your shift work practices.
  • Decide what risks are present.
  • Find out who may be at risk from shift work e.g. pregnant women, young people and staff with pre-existing health problems.
  • Review the risk assessment at regular intervals.

How to lessen shift work risks

A key way to minimise the risks that shift workers face is to design an effective employee schedule.

Excessive shift work and failure to provide enough rest breaks and rest days result in a higher chance of human error.

Use the HSE’s fatigue and risk index calculator to find out whether your shift schedule will cause fatigue. This tool helps you recognise the shifts that could result in exhaustion and injury.

The Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977 and the Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996 stipulate that you must consult with your workers about anything to do with health and safety. You should listen and take into account the views of your staff before making changes to shift work.

Here are a few recommendations when designing employee schedules to reduce shift work risks:

  • Alternate shifts every two to three days
  • Try to stay away from shifts that start before 7am
  • Avoid scheduling shifts for longer than 12 hours
  • Schedule regular break times
  • Encourage staff to tell their GP that they’re doing shift work

Rota planning is an important part of managing shift work risks. You can avoid employee shift fatigue when managing staff rotas, by taking into consideration health and safety, your legal duties, business needs, and feedback from your staff.

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