Researcher: UK's Occupational Safety Agency Asleep at the Wheel for Shiftworkers

June 10, 2009
Andrew Watterson, a professor at the University of Stirling, says that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the agency in the U.K. that regulates occupational safety and health, is short-shifting an estimated 3.5 million shiftworkers because its employees do not work outside of normal business hours.

According to Watterson in a report published in the publication Hazard, there is no preventive health promotion work and no routine, afterhours safety and health inspections. HSE is responsible for policing criminal breaches of health and safety law in sectors including chemicals, nuclear, offshore, construction, agriculture and general manufacturing.

"Shiftworkers face all the same risks as workers on normal hours, plus a slew of risks all of their own," said Watterson, who heads up the University's Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group. "Atypical working hours have been linked to conditions including breast cancer, prostate cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, heightened injury and disaster risk, fatigue, heart disease risk factors and pregnancy problems. Evidence is emerging that these health effects combined make shiftworkers, particularly women shiftworkers, far more likely to take early ill-health retirement."

HSE was quick to respond, with John Osman, HSE's chief medical advisor, saying, "HSE does carry out preventative inspections out-of-hours where appropriate and necessary. However, inspections are just one in a range of tools we use to regulate and influence employers."

He said an important element of HSE's normal inspections "is an examination of provision for ensuring the health and safety of those working outside 'office' hours. This examination includes a physical inspection of the control measures and consultation with employees and trade unions or safety representatives."

Acknowledging that some jobsites require 24-hour or atypical work shifts, Watterson added, "That doesn't mean they should be an after-hours army of zombies overlooked by the official safety watchdog. It certainly doesn't mean employers should get away with the more onerous work patterns – longer hours, inadequate breaks between shifts, unpredictable shift patterns – that can lead to serious health problems longer-term."

Osman countered, saying, "Any concerns raised with HSE about shift or out-of-hours working are treated seriously and investigated - this may include an out-of-hours inspection. If HSE took any enforcement action it would not necessarily show as a Working Time Regulation matter and could fall under the Health and Safety at Work Act."

According to Watterson, there have been just two HSE working time-related prosecutions since 2001 but these were not based on health issues. Since 2001-2002, HSE has issued 38 improvement notices relating to the Working Time Regulations, although since 2003, no year has had more than two notices. Between 2004-2005 and 2007-2008, HSE undertook just 16 prosecutions on any work-related health issues, compared to over 4,700 prosecutions for safety offenses.

Watterson said he is concerned that official guidance from HSE plays down many of the chronic health risks and ignores others, like cancer and heart disease, entirely, so that neither workers nor their doctors are likely to make the link between working hours and patterns of poor health.

"We live in a 24/7/365 working world, but HSE is near dormant on the working hours issue," warned Watterson. "It undertakes no routine inspections and has taken no prosecutions in the last 5 years related to health risks arising from grueling and body-wrecking work patterns. In fact, it barely takes any action on work-related ill health at all. While HSE remains unmoved, there is evidence the health effects of shiftworking are an increasing concern for the workforce."

In his report, "While You Were Sleeping," Watterson calls for more HSE resources to be targeted at workers on atypical hours, rigorous enforcement of working time law, an end to the UK opt-out from the working time directive's 48-hour working week ceiling and for the U.K. government to follow the Danish government's lead and compensate workers with breast cancer related to long-term night work.

HSE recently has commissioned a major research study (with the University of Oxford) that aims to add to the understanding of the reported association of shift work with breast cancer, other cancers and other major diseases. A further aim of the research is to see if any particular aspects of shift work give rise to any risk that might exist. The study, commissioned in 2007, runs from December 2008 to December 2011.

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