Key workers – including those working in the healthcare, utility and transport sectors – are more likely to suffer from health-related illness or sustain an injury as a result of shift work.
Research by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) indicates that shift workers who are doing night shifts are about 25 to 30 per cent more at risk of injury than those working day shifts.
The study examined five aspects of wellbeing including chronic fatigue, emotional reactivity, social isolation, stress, and overall health.
Researchers found that working a 12-hour rather than an eight-hour shift increases the risk of injury, again by 25 to 30 per cent with risk increasing evenly over four consecutive shifts.
They found that those workers on unsocial hours reported higher levels of chronic fatigue as a result of the disturbance of biological rhythms that occur because of shift work. Over many years the disruption of these biological and social factors could have negative long-term effects. This is of considerable concern amid Covid-19, as the shift patterns have been extended in workplaces worldwide.
Disruption of the body clock, and the need for sleep alongside family and social time, can result in acute effects on mood and performance, which may lead to long-term effects on mental health – affecting both workers physical, psychological and psycho-social health and safety.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has also raised its concerns for healthcare workers working 12-hour shifts in critical care.
The RCN points out that the risks are exacerbated for those working 12-hour shifts in a critical care environment during the Covid-19 pandemic. These factors include but are not limited to the following:
• Wearing PPE for long periods, which is physically demanding, and can result in potential heat stress;
• Errors when donning and doffing PPE;
• High levels of moving and handling activity when positioning patients;
• Increased time exposed to patients with infection, leading to a potentially increased viral exposure; and
• The potential for errors or safety lapses caused by fatigue.
Based on this study, and on existing best practice, IOSH researchers’ recommendations include a mixture of common-sense changes by individuals to their lifestyles and practical measures by employers to the working environment.
These changes include evaluating shift schedule design such as length of breaks and start and finish times to allow adequate time between shifts for sleep and meal preparation, providing at least 48 hours between shift changes and to provide regular (annual) health checks for shift workers and transfer them to day work if required.
You can read about the effects of shift work on health in the IOSH report.