Strengthening Safety With Shift Scheduling Principles

May 2, 2005
Error-free, 24/7 operations depend on excellent shift scheduling and cooperation between the departments responsible for safety and scheduling.

Control center operators, truckers, 911 dispatchers, space engineers and ship captains have all been caught in shift scheduling incidents that made the courts and 6 p.m. news. To reduce such notoriety and losses, safety personnel should spend more time talking with shift scheduling management.

Although the safety and scheduling function are usually housed in different departments, I routinely insist that they work closely together during schedule planning.

Shiftwork Benchmarking Institute has hosted dozens of interviews and cross-industry benchmarking groups, revealing their 24/7 histories, issues and best scheduling practices. From this knowledge, I compiled the "SBI Scheduling Principles."

These are scheduling principles found to reduce human error and improve 24/7 performance and profitability in many industries including manufacturing, chemical, electric power, refining, mining, security and police.

The following principles are especially critical to safety across these industries:

Minimize Unexpected Stay-Overs "Stay-overs" past the scheduled 8, 10 or 12-hour workday occur when a shift relief doesn't show or an unexpected workload develops. The stay-over is our worst type of overtime. It leads to high fatigue, error rate and a cycle of absences. (One California group, severely stricken with stay-over overtime, labeled it the "Calling in Slick" cycle!) Much stay-over activity is perpetuated by burned out, unhealthy employees working 8-hour rotating shifts.

Minimize Shift Rotations Rotating shifts are often necessary for tight management and fairness. However, rotations should be slowed or even eliminated where possible to reduce fatigue and shift lag. The exceptions are with extremely rapid-rotating schedules (e.g., some 12-hour schedules and air traffic controller schedules). We can usually reduce fatigue and incident rate by going to slow-no rotations.

For 8-Hr Schedules Rotate Clockwise The old break-through schedule for 20th century day-workers seldom works well in 24/7. Short work shifts lacking truly recuperative days off soon lead to fatigue, boring lifestyle, poor development then burnout and incidents. We've all seen the old-style zombie workers who were tired, hopeless and helpless.

If you must schedule 8s and rotate, set the rotation in the forward direction (days to evenings to nights to days). Your personnel will feel much better and will be more vigilant and positive. When scheduling on paper, the temptation is to set the rotation counter-clockwise. Don't do it! Rotation direction is extremely important for better circadian clock and alertness performance. This has become a standard consultant recommendation during the last two decades.

Schedule Recuperative Time-Off Your 24/7 employees require longer recuperation blocks than do day-workers, due to the stress and fatigue of night work and rotations. Rotating employees do not recuperate in 1 or 2 days. Build several off-time blocks of 3 days-plus into the schedule, preferably at least one block every 2 weeks.

Schedule Shorter Work Sets Schedule work sets of 2 to 4 days. Do not schedule more than 4 workdays in a row except during emergencies and plant turnarounds. Do not turn 5-day-plus workweeks into regular events. Five and 6-day work sets are fine for day-workers but they are just too long and fatiguing for rotating and night workers. Long work sets lead to burnout and incidents.

Schedule Longer Workdays Schedule longer workdays of 9 to 12 hours. This will open up time for the recuperative off-days that are so vital for recuperation of the internal clock. Are these longer days extra tiring? Definitely not for employees working good schedules with real recuperation blocks! In fact, you will observe these "alternative schedule employees" as being the most alert and optimistic. In many cases in chemicals, oil, mining and police departments I've found that 12-hour schedules transform shiftwork jobs into the jobs of choice.

Improve Transitions via Warm-Up Meetings Schedule warm-up meetings after vacations and long breaks. This will help minimize communications-related errors. Also ascertain that employees are brought up to date after plant turnarounds and major technical changes.


Is your scheduling manager getting strong support from the safety department? Forming a good working alliance and ensuring that safe 24/7 scheduling principles are applied wherever possible can add an unexpected and welcomed strength to your company's safety and loss prevention program.

Glenn McBride, [email protected], long-time author of several SBI books and manuals on 24/7 shiftwork, recently released "Schedules for Shiftwork" in e-book and hard copy. See:

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