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Does Shift Work Affect Health? How you can Reduce the Risks.

Posted on January 11, 2019

Increasingly, we are moving toward a 24-hour world. Because of this, there is an increasing demand for employees to work around the clock. This means workers are being required to work shifts at unsociable hours. Researchers are now aware of the risks involved with working at night. So employers need to also be aware of these risks and take steps to avoid them.

Do we have an Internal Body Clock?

Over the past 40 years scientists have been studying the possibility of an internal “body clock”, and the effects this could have on our ability to work. Research has found that over time the human body has developed a 24-hour rhythm. And furthermore, there is evidence that the body performs certain tasks better during the day.

At night time, regardless of whether you are working or not, the body prepares to sleep. Obviously, you can’t eat when you’re asleep. So various body functions slow down. At night we produce less saliva than during the day. The body also empties the stomach slower, and we metabolise glucose at a reduced rate.

But it’s not just eating functions that change at certain times of the day. At night, the body turns on processes which process information, fight infections and memory consolidation. And during the day, hormones are released which affect our metabolic rate and muscle density. All of which affects our mood and ability to concentrate.

Put all these changes together, and it becomes clear why we are able to perform some tasks better during the day. Studies have found that swimmers are faster and tennis players are able to serve more accurately in the evening.

What Does this Mean for Health & Safety?

With increasing evidence that humans task completion accuracy is lower at night. There comes an increased risk of accidents occurring at this time. This makes night shifts more dangerous to work on (compared to an equivalent day shift). Major incidents such as the Chernobyl disaster and the Exxon Valdez oil spill both occurred at night.

Working night shifts is accepted practice across many industries. This means companies should implement measures to attempt to reduce the risks involved with working at night.

What Additional Measures Should Companies Take?

The changes companies can implement to try to mitigate these problems can be split into 3 main areas.


One of the biggest problems night shift workers face is with the availability of food. Or to be more specific, healthy and nutritious food. A lot of companies and the NHS fall behind in this area. They don’t have the same standard of meals available for night shift workers as they do for day shift workers.

This often leads to a situation where workers are forced to rely on snacks from vending machines. This becomes more of a problem when linked to the biological changes which were touched on above. The body does not process food at the same rate at night. This leads to increased rates of obesity in night shift workers and other associated health problems.

Health Monitoring

As night shifts increase the likelihood of encountering health problems. It would be beneficial to either start to monitor, or increase the amount of monitoring, the health of your employees.

There are a number of health complications which are associated with shift work. Including memory loss, type 2 diabetes and other illnesses which need to be discovered at the earliest possible opportunity. Frequent health screening can pick up these illnesses, and stop them before they become more serious.

Shift Patterns

As there is now significant evidence that there is a link between working night shifts and health problems, companies should avoid continually making employees work them, when this is practicable.

There is also another problem which employers should try to avoid: the stress moving from a day shift to a night shift, and vice versa can have on a person. Therefore, it is recommended that workers should rotate shifts.

This would involve working out a pattern of shifts with a starting time that rotates through the day, over time. For example, a shift which starts in the afternoon, followed by one which starts in the evening, then one which starts at night. This not only breaks up the change, but stops employees working constant night shifts.

24-hour working and shift working is here to stay. But if businesses are asking their employees to work these hours, they need to take precautions to manage both the short and long-term risks. For more information on managing issues with working shifts, click the link below, contact us on 0151 545 0497 or drop us an email: [email protected]

Source: IOSH

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