Shift workers at risk for sleepiness and health problems

Over the past few decades, an increasing number of industries have started to work around the clock to meet their productivity demands.  Shift work is defined as work done outside the standard 9:00-5:00 working day, including both night shifts, and work schedules where employees change or rotate shifts. About 25% of Canada’s workforce is comprised of shift workers coming from several different industries: transportation (trucking, aviation, rail), mining, manufacturing, as well as services such as healthcare, police, and fire services. By operating on a 24/7 basis, these industries can enhance productivity and improve customer satisfaction.

The advantages of running a 24/7 business often come at the expense of workers health. Shift workers are at increased risk for several illnesses including cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases, likely because they tend to get less sleep overall than those who work standard hours. Shift workers may also suffer from “shift work sleep disorder,”as they have to continually adjust their sleep-wake patterns according to their work shifts. The symptoms of shift work sleep disorder include lack of energy, headache, and difficulty concentrating – all of which can lead to serious  consequences.

The most devastating and frequent problems shift workers face pertain to the risks involved with excessive sleepiness. Fatigue in the work place can lead to errors, accidents, absenteeism, and fatalities. Many 24/7 industries are obliged to address the problems associated with shift-work through fatigue management strategies, including schedule optimization, sleep disorder screening, and education and training  programs for employees.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following tips to avoid the consequences associated with shift work:

• Avoid long commutes and extended hours.

• Take short nap breaks throughout the shift.

• Work with others to help keep you alert.

• Try to be active during breaks

• Drink a caffeinated beverage (coffee, tea, colas) to help maintain alertness during the shift.

• Don’t leave the most tedious or boring tasks to the end of your shift when you are apt to feel the drowsiest. Night shift workers are most sleepy around 4-5 a.m.