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Shiftwork: Safety and the Biological Clock

The necessity of shift work is indisputable. The very fact that a whopping 30% of the population works the red eye illustrates the vital component these individuals play in keeping some of the world's most crucial industries alive. In fact, 80% of...

August 1, 2004  By Pulp & Paper Canada

The necessity of shift work is indisputable. The very fact that a whopping 30% of the population works the red eye illustrates the vital component these individuals play in keeping some of the world’s most crucial industries alive. In fact, 80% of men and 72% of women work shift work simply because it’s a requirement of the job. But it doesn’t mean they like it. Nor does the necessity of the work combat the health and safety related issues that arise when a person attempts to fight his or her biological clock that screams “bedtime” when 10:30 p.m. rolls around.

Not a job but a lifestyle

Shift work is often referred to as a way of life. Workers operating on a perpetually rotating schedule must adapt to a variety of changes. However, despite an employee’s best efforts, Statistics Canada estimates that whereas 20% of shift-workers are able to cope reasonably well with the inevitable lifestyle alterations, an equal 20% are unable to adapt and quit their job altogether.


However, in many cases working on a rotating schedule is often an unavoidable part of an occupation. Unfortunately, according to Pulp and Paper Health and Safety Association trainer Thom Foster, no one ever teaches a person coming into a job how to be a shift worker. And according to Foster, 60% of people not working the 9-to-5 grind struggle with shift work.

“Traits of a shift worker typically include sluggishness, especially during the transition period, irritability, stress, poor eating habits, fatigue, sleeping disorders, lack of enthusiasm and mood swings. Shift-workers tend to feel alienated, they become cynical about the organization, especially in production industries, they lack emotional self-control and become intolerant to change,” he said. “Job performance and safety suffers in terms of job dissatisfaction, attention to detail suffers. Other on the job effects can include peripheral hallucinations, temporary loss of memory and shift paralysis.”

Given the emotional and physical stress shift work imposes on an employee, it’s not difficult to see how constantly working through the night could potentially lead to health and safety problems. The human body operates on its own time clock that runs on a 24-hour schedule and is affected by darkness, light and mealtimes. Sleep works to affect and regulate some of the body’s most vital functions such as body temperature, digestion and blood pressure. Contributing to the problem is the fact that most shift-workers are required to alternate between days and nights and so their schedule is constantly changing. This provides the body with a limited window of opportunity to adjust itself and almost no time to catch up. When the body’s circadian rhythms are constantly being turned on their heads, it’s not hard to make the jump to understand why shift-workers typically suffer more health problems than others do.

And more accidents. Most errors on the job occur between 10:30 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., when the rest of us are tucked into our beds sleeping. Whereas the sleepers can let their biological clocks kick in and succumb to the gradual dropping off of body temperature, shift-workers struggle against nature to keep their eyelids open and performing the task at hand. “Between 10:30 p.m. and 4 a.m. the body’s temperature drops to tell the body it’s time to go to sleep,” Foster explained. “The body will stop at almost nothing to get some sleep.”

Sleep and safety

With 22 years of emergency services under his belt and after penning six books on injury prevention, Martin Lesperance can confirm with a fair amount of confidence that being tired does little to promote safety. “Being tired certainly does impair a person,” he said. “You can’t concentrate, your reaction times are slower. For a shift worker, getting a good night or a good day’s sleep can be really hard. And so you get irritable. You get stressed. Stress makes it harder to sleep. You go to work already feeling tired. This increases your chances of getting injured and if you’re working in a pulp and paper mill, you’re working with big heavy rotating equipment and a small lapse in concentration could have devastating effects.”

So what have employers done to help workers overcome the dangers imposed by shift work? A variety of changes have been implemented but perhaps the largest is a complete turnaround in thinking, an increased awareness and respect for the degree of difficulty shift work implies.

“It’s certainly not as bad as it was 10-15 years ago,” said John Little, a risk management consultant specializing in the optimization of safety technology. Most mills now use 12 hour shifts and from what I’ve seen and heard, workers much prefer this. Because now you might work three 12 hour shifts a week and have four days off, as opposed to five shifts of eight hours.” However, as Little points out, no matter what your shift is or how often you work it, fatigue is an inevitable part of a shift worker’s life.

“Most people have trouble with it. It screws up your sleeping patterns, there’s no doubt about it. And it’s problematic on two levels. For people doing routine work, complacency sets in. You become nonchalant, casual. For people doing non-routine work, they have to think their way through the job process. Maintenance people are an example where every job for them is unique. So fatigue is a factor in both instances because you have to be attentive. Where you can really get into trouble is when there’s an emergency and someone gets called back into work after already working 12 hours and this happens. There are breakdowns that need to be fixed and someone will have to come back to do that job. But you have to remember, there is a 20% higher accident rate at night.”

Being tired isn’t the only culprit when it comes to nighttime accidents. As Thom Foster pointed out, the root cause is more likely to be found in the culture of night work, which oftentimes is not conducive to safety. “We’ve noticed during our audits that adherence to safety is much stricter during the day and more lax at night. The working environment in the day is completely different from that at night, simply because there’s much less managerial staff around,” he explained.

Foster also noted that accidents aren’t always the biggest concern in relation to shift work. Issues such as lost productivity and absenteeism are paramount in industries that rely on extended hours of operation. “I’ve always said that if you want management to understand shift work, you have to get management to work shift work and this hardly ever happens. What mills are experiencing are huge losses in productivity due to increased absenteeism and rising health care costs and these things cost us all.” Foster highlighted a U.S.-based study that concluded its economy lost $8.5 billion in 2003 due to absenteeism directly related to problems associated with shift work. A staggering $54 billion was lost in productivity, $79.4 billion was lost in health care costs.

Possible solutions

In order to combat fatigue and other shift work-related problems, many employers have begun to encourage the luxuriating in a bit of shut-eye by permitting workers to take brief, 20 minute naps during a shift. The break allows the body an opportunity to rejuvenate itself and to overcome some of the hazards imposed by tiredness. “We’ve really come full circle,” John Little said. “We used to reprimand people for sleeping on the job and now a lot of mills encourage it. But a 20-minute nap can cut the fatigue factor and so it’s worth it. It’s like driving. When you’re tired, the best thing to do is pull over and have a snooze. If it saves you from having an accident, why not?”

Apart from permitting employees the opportunity to sleep while on shift, there are many investments mills can make to enhance working conditions for people working outside regular hours of operation. “Anti-fatigue matting is one way to cut fatigue,” explained Little. “Instead of walking on concrete you’re walking on cushions, so your endurance will be longer.”

Lighting also plays an integral role in keeping workers alert
and concentrated on the task at hand. Proper lighting works to convince the human body to keep functioning at normal levels during hours of the day typically reserved for sleeping. Process control engineer Joe Desroches from Bowater Thunder Bay has witnessed many positive initiatives at his mill in terms of lighting and other key factors designed to accommodate people working irregular hours.

“If an area in the mill is poorly lit, due to either poor design or failed devices, the operators put in safety requests. These requests are given top priority by the maintenance department. There is not much outside lighting that gets into the mill, so the day/night characteristics inside the mill for lighting are similar,” he said.

As many shift workers tend to adopt exiguous eating habits, mills are starting to examine and implement ways to ensure employees maintain a reasonably healthy diet. When a person’s entire schedule is constantly changing, continuing to consume meals at what are considered ‘normal’ times can prove a challenge. Finding the time and energy to exercise even more so. Bowater Thunder Bay has realized these challenges and done something about them. “Most of the control rooms have a lunch room with a fridge, stove, microwave and coffee maker. The mill has an exercise area that is open in the day and evening hours. You can get into the exercise room after hours with security opening it for you,” Desroches said.

Other accommodations mills are starting to consider are extended cafeteria hours and ameliorated eating facilities, better ventilation and air exchange systems, shift logbooks, shift overlapping, health club memberships and training/education on shift work. Emphasis on understanding how the body responds to altered sleep cycles has prompted employers to schedule shifts in a manner the most conducive to an employee being able to adapt to a shift work lifestyle. Most mills have moved away from eight hour shifts to 12 hour work days or nights in order to provide an employee with the most days off in a row as possible.

“We have four crews that rotate,” Desroches confirmed. “Days one and two the shift goes from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Days three and four the shift goes from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. Then days five, six, seven and eight they’ll have off. The responses I have gotten from the shift workers I have talked to is that this system is far superior to the old system which had eight hour shifts.”

Worker solutions

Despite efforts on behalf of mills to accommodate shift workers, problems inevitably arise. An employee may very well have three or four days off in a row but considering that it takes the body at least two days to adjust, how much of that time can be spent enjoyably? “It’s like jet lag,” Little described. “And often we may think it only takes us a few days to adjust when actually it takes a couple of weeks. You need a transition period between days and nights. It’s like working at sea level and then coming home. It takes time to adjust.”

It has taken stationary engineer Bruno Fortin 21 years to adjust and he’s not there yet. Fortin has worked in the steam plant at Quebec’s Abitibi-Consolidated for more than two decades and has always been on shift. Although he commends the mill for taking above and beyond measures to implement safe working conditions, he finds that working outside normal hours of operation still takes its toll.

“I’ll work three days one week and have four off. The next week I’ll work four and have three off. So if I finish a shift at 7:00 a.m. Monday morning, I’ll go home and sleep for five hours or so. I have a hard time sleeping during the day and so I won’t get the same amount of hours of sleep a person sleeping a normal night would. The problem is that my wife will be ready for bed at about 10:30 p.m. Now, I’ve been standing up for the past three or four nights, so by that time I’m just not ready to go to bed and it might not be until 12:30 p.m. or 1:00 a.m. that I’m ready.” Fortin illustrated. “On Tuesday it will be a bit better, but the thing I find that really suffers is my concentration. You’re in between two worlds, it’s like you’re there, but not really there.”

Fortin isn’t the only one at Abitibi who has had to work his way around the intricacies of shift work. His co-workers have had to adapt as well. As Fortin points out everyone is different and it can be a matter of simply finding what works best on an individual level. “Many of the guys will sleep two or three hours right before coming to work so they’re good for the night. Concentration isn’t that much of a problem because they take measures to be sure they’ll be alert for the duration of their shift.”

Abitibi has also recognized the benefits exercise can have for shift workers. “A Nautilus gym was set up in a hospital close to us,” Fortin said. “Abitibi gave us a discount when we joined there, and I did join. I saw a lot of people from work there too, guys who weren’t necessarily in the best of shape but took advantage of the incentive the mill offered us.”

The upside

Regardless of its many pitfalls, shift work has its upside as well. At the annual Pulp and Paper Health and Safety Association conference held in May, delegates identified many pluses of shift work. Topmost were the ability to accommodate family responsibilities, the opportunity to find time for school, the avoidance of traffic and the time to schedule appointments. Of course, there are some people who simply like working shift work and for a variety of reasons. “Some people really enjoy it,” said John Little. “You have less supervision, which can be a bonus for some and usually people who are working the night shift don’t need as much supervision because they’re reliable. Shift work isn’t for everyone, but a lot of the time it’s just a matter of picking the right person to do it.” Little also highlighted the necessity of responsibility on behalf of employers to ensure that shift work is conducive to safe work practices. “A lot of mills won’t schedule maintenance tasks at night, dangerous work will be scheduled for the day shift. You need to operate on the premise that there are dangers and then take the proper precautions. It just makes sense.



“It’s amazing the amount of shift workers who don’t have a dark room to sleep in,” said safety expert Martin Lesperance. “And having one makes all the difference.” Items such as a good mattress, blinds that block out light effectively, a fan for white noise and in some cases, earplugs and eye masks are sound investments in a shift worker’s health.

A good grocery list isn’t a bad thing to have on hand either. “A shift worker’s diet is definitely going to suffer,” Lesperance said. “It’s really hard to eat in a consistent manner when you’re working on a shift.” Despite their varied schedules, shift workers should still aim to have three meals per day, making sure to combine proteins and carbohydrates. The bulk of a shift worker’s protein sources should be consumed at the first meal of the day.

Other items to be considered are devices designed specifically for individuals working alone. Ross Humphry, owner of company Canadian Safety Equipment has developed one of these types of systems, called the Lone Worker Protection System. The system can be clipped onto a pair of pants or belt and screens the worker’s movement. If a person has an accident, he has the option of hitting a panic button and radioing other people in the building and informing them of his condition and location. “Pulp and paper mills are notorious for calling people in off schedule. Often someone will come in and work unsupervised. So if anything ever happened to that person, no one would know. This system can be worn the whole time you’re in the mill.” Originally designed for firefighters, Humphry has recently done presentations at several mills including Domtar in Espanola. “They were very impressed,” he said. But for Humphry, the system is a commonsensical investment in safety. “I worked in pulp and paper for years and I can think of many people who would come into work a
nd they didn’t report to anyone. No one would know what they were doing. This is a really good system for people working on shift work, for people working unsupervised.”

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