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Shift work: how companies can protect employees

By Mark Paterson
Senior Risk Manager

There are more than 3.5 million shift workers in the UK, accounting for 14% of the working population. Shift workers are found in a variety of industries from healthcare to entertainment, with shifts defined as employment outside of 7am-7pm. The UK’s move towards a 24-hour society and a lack of employment options have both been cited as possible causes for an increase in shift working...

Shift-working schedules, which do not balance work demands with rest and recovery, can result in fatigue, accidents and ill health. Fatigue has been implicated in 20% of accidents on major roads and costs the UK between £115-240 million per year in terms of work accidents alone.

Employers have a legal duty to manage risks from fatigue, regardless of an employee’s willingness to work extra hours or preference for particular shift patterns. Compliance with the Working Time Regulations alone is insufficient to manage the risk of fatigue. Also, as shift workers have a higher level of sickness absence it also makes good business sense to effectively manage the risks associated with shift working.

What employers should do:

  • Plan an appropriate and varied workload
  • Avoid early morning starts and try and fit shifts in with the availability of public transport
  • Limit shifts to 12 hours including overtime, or 8 hours if they are night shifts and/or the work is demanding,  monotonous or safety critical
  • Encourage workers to take regular breaks
  • Limit consecutive working days to a maximum of 5-7 days and restrict long shifts, night shifts and early morning  shifts to  2-3 consecutive shifts
  • Provide similar facilities as those available during daytime and allow shift workers time for training and development
  • Set standards and allow time for handovers
  • Encourage workers to tell their GPs that they are shift workers and provide free health assessments

Ensuring compliance with the Working Time Regulations is not enough, businesses must  also have systems in place to manage the health and safety risk of shift work. Shift work needs to be recognised as a health and safety issue. Any business that employs shift workers must ensure that all senior managers are aware of the risks associated with this type of work as well as heir legal duties under health and safety legislation.