Managing shift workers’ health and safety concerns

By Ray Bedson on May 22nd, 2018
  1. Safety Management
  2. Fatigue Management


The number and types of industries utilising shift workers have increased over the years. While modern manufacturing and processing workplaces have continued the practice, technological developments and globalisation have increase the number of companies working around the clock.

On-demand delivery services, web-based call-centres, 24-hour help desks, fast food outlets, emergency services, fly-in fly-out miners and even some retailers are among industries that use shift workers.

Shift workers are often subject to health and safety risks that other workers are not, such as circadian rhythm disruptions, fatigue and isolation.

Rotation or fixed?

From a health and wellbeing perspective, rotational shift arrangements create challenges. Constant changing of sleep arrangements, adjustments to working conditions like lighting, heating and cooling mean a constant state of imbalance where injuries and incidents are more likely to occur.

I have worked on a variety of shifts. I find I cope okay on day and afternoon shifts but I struggle with night shifts. Hence, every 3 weeks on an 8-hour/5-day roster, I felt constantly fatigued doing a night shift.

Sleep patterns are challenged with rotating shifts as home and family life constantly interrupt rest and sleep while frequently changing meal times can be difficult to adjust to.

In my opinion, fixed shifts are generally safer, as they allow the worker to establish a pattern that lowers the risk of fatigue.

External factors

Some factors will contribute to the risks involved with shift work that are not related to the workplace at all, such as:

  • age, fitness and physical health, e.g. older workers cope less with shift work; smoking, drinking, unhealthy diets and lack of exercise have greater effects on shift workers;
  • sleep environment at home, i.e. noise, lighting, temperature of the bedroom are concerns for those trying to sleep during the day; and
  • family demands and commitments, which can increase fatigue when constant sleep interruptions occur.

It’s important to check that potential shift workers are aware of and understand the risks associated with shift work and that you constantly monitor existing shift workers for signs of poor health and fatigue.

Fatigue management

Research has shown that shift workers are six times more likely to have a fatigue-related road accident compared with other workers. Distance from home to work can add to an already long day and increase the risk of an accident.

The Heavy Vehicle National Regulator has some excellent recommendations to minimise the risk of fatigue, such as recommended shift length, breaks between shifts and maximum number of shifts per week. These can be used as a guide for any workplace, regardless of industry.

Be aware though that work pressures, overtime, seasonal work and poor decision-making by management can compromise these established guidelines, which can lead to catastrophic outcomes for exposed workers.

It would be a great idea to sit down with workers and health and safety representatives at your workplace to write policies and procedures around shift work, to gain agreement and understanding of the risks involved and how to manage them safely.

To help get you started, the Health & Safety Handbook has a chapter on Shift Work, which discusses in more detail the specific health and safety risks and offers strategies to manage them. The chapter also includes checklists, tips, case law examples and hints on avoiding poor handovers between shifts.

Written in plain English by the health and safety experts at Holding Redlich, the Health & Safety Handbook is the go-to place for all your work-related health and safety issues – all in the one book.

Order your copy today and check out the 70-plus chapters for yourself.


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