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Researchers have found that irregular shiftwork can result in cognitive impairment equal to 65 years of aging for a workerrsquos brain and can lead to higher injury rates and health problems

Brain Drain: More Management Oversight Required for Shiftwork Safety

Dec. 16, 2014
A recent study found that working irregular or longer-than-normal shift hours has a negative impact on cognitive abilities, bad news for the many workers who work long shifts or who work rotating shifts each week. The impact is equivalent to a brain aged an extra 6.5 years.

Can working longer shifts or rotating shifts age your brain? A recent study published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, "Chronic Effects of Shift Work on Cognition:Findings from the VISAT Longitudinal Study," examined the “chronicity and reversibility” of the effects of shiftwork on cognition. Researchers found that irregular shiftwork can result in cognitive impairment equal to 6.5 years of aging for a worker’s brain.

While cognitive loss is a focal point of the study, as a safety professional, I see the research as an opportunity to discuss and highlight the immediate safety issues related to workers and society associated with shiftwork. On an industry-wide level, managers need­­ to take steps to understand the effects of shiftwork on their employees and actively oversee their scheduling and culture in order to recognize the unique safety issues that could disrupt a company’s efficiency, safety and overall health.

Sleep Patterns and Safety

Work hours generally are separated into first, second and third shift, with the third shift spanning the late night through early morning times. Some shiftwork takes place in an industrial environment, where employees are working with equipment. These individuals may work first shift for two weeks and then second shift for two weeks and third shift for two weeks, a schedule that constantly is changing and therefore affecting sleep patterns. When an employee works third shift, his or her sleep patterns completely are thrown off.

Employees who work irregular shifts follow odd sleep hours and experience constant breaks in their body’s circadian rhythm. This issue not only is stressful, but it can also be debilitating. Disrupted sleep patterns cause fatigue, and according to OSHA, symptoms of fatigue include irritability, increased susceptibility to illness, depression, weariness and reduced alertness. These side effects can cause a variety of dangers to workers and the public as well as the company’s bottom line.

In addition, an individual with disrupted sleep patterns can experience a lack of concentration and reaction time. For example, when these employees are behind the wheel of an eighteen-wheeler or the controls of heavy machinery, there is an immediate potential risk to themselves or others. Tracy Morgan, the popular comedian on 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live, was riding in a limo bus that was involved in a devastating crash with a tractor-trailer truck that injured the comedian and killed another passenger. Authorities say the truck driver hadn’t slept for at least 24 hours prior to the incident.

Active Oversight by Safety Managers

The truth of the matter is that managers need employees to be working at all times of the day and night in order to ensure companies stay profitable and keep the general economy moving. However, it is the responsibility of business owners, management and safety managers to have active oversight into all shifts, no matter the time.

Depending on the business and industry, first and second shift tend to be production shifts with safety professionals who work in-house. Third shift often is contracted to subcontractors and focused more on clean-up and maintenance. This maintenance can include daunting tasks like cleaning machinery and repairing/replacing vital equipment.  

Third shift requires employees to work late into the night, and it can become highly dangerous when completing maintenance and clean-up tasks in an industrial setting. In the maintenance stage, there are situations where the equipment may energize and a worker can become injured (or worse) if the or she is not following the proper procedures.

A 2006 study by Liberty Mutual found that third-shift workers experienced injury rates more than 27 percent higher than workers on the first shift. More often than not, safety managers work regular hours and will check in on the third shift periodically. This can leave potentially fatigued workers completing dangerous tasks without proper management.

How Can Safety Managers Help?

Safety managers must work to build an around-the-clock safety culture for their employees while striving to fully and completely understand all of the safety and health nuances that impact them. To help keep employees at an optimal mental level, managers should keep a closer eye on the schedule and the shifts employees are taking. Safety managers need to analyze their company’s scheduling and ensure that appropriate safeguards are implemented to address the potential risks created by and through the scheduling itself.

Safety managers can establish policies and procedures to safeguard employees and encourage employees to recognize the impact of sleep patterns and their cognitive health. Additionally, they can work to understand the culture of chronic shiftworkers. They can familiarize themselves with the sleep patterns of workers who sleep during the day and work at night. With a better understanding of workers, it is easier to spot the times when a worker is fatigued.

Also, OSHA has some recommendations that will help safety managers. OSHA suggests employees work more days rather than longer shifts. Under a safety manager’s diligent eye, if fatigue is detected, OSHA recommends allowing time to “take breaks, eat meals, relax and sleep. If at remote sites, ensure, as far as possible, that there is a quiet, secluded area designated for rest and recuperation.”

A Call for Industry Change

There currently is no OSHA standard covering unusual or extended work shifts. This points to the importance for safety managers to establish safety and health programs which address potential risks beyond simply achieving and maintaining compliance. While companies are moving away from traditional shiftwork, there is evidence that calls for a larger industry change when considering worker and societal safety in the United States.

We are seeing global advances in this area. In China, for example, businesses have hour structures in place that include sleep breaks in private rooms and more frequent breaks during the day. In the United States, many employees are left with the options of putting their head down in the break room or taking a quick nap in their car.

To address this potential risk, safety managers carefully should examine and analyze their current shift situation and ensure that appropriate safeguards are established to protect their employees. Although change often is difficult, safety managers should look for ways to quantify these often-unseen risks and look for creative methods to eliminate or minimize these risks. By analyzing the global work environment and making knowledgeable updates to current policies based on research and studies, safety managers can improve the health and safety of their employees and the public and potentially lesson some of the long-term cognitive impacts of shiftwork.

About the author: Tom Schneid, J.D., is a tenured professor in the Department of Safety, Security and Emergency Management at Eastern Kentucky University. Schneid earned a B.S. in education, and an M.S. and CAS is safety as well as his Juris Doctor from West Virginia University and LL.M. from the University of San Diego. Tom is a member of the bar for the U.S. Supreme Court, 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, and a number of federal districts as well as the Kentucky and West Virginia Bar. He has authored and co-authored (14) texts on various safety, fire, EMS and legal topics as well as over 100 articles. He was named one of the “Rising Stars in Safety” by Occupational Hazards magazine (now EHS Today) in 1997 and was awarded the Program of Distinction Fellow by the Commonwealth of Kentucky and EKU (1999/2000).

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