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January 09, 2006
Shift Work—the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The good. OSHA requires you to extend the same protections and safety requirements to shift workers that are extended to dayworkers. This means that:

  • Safety rules and regulations apply to all workers regardless of when they work.
  • Shift workers must receive all OSHA-mandated safety training, the same as dayworkers.
  • Shift workers must be provided with all required PPE.
  • They must also have access to necessary safety information, such as MSDSs, emergency plans, etc.
  • Their work areas must be adequately maintained and inspected for safety hazards.
  • Shift workers must be given required medical examinations, and environmental monitoring must be performed on all shifts.
  • Shift workers must have access to emergency first-aid treatment, supplies, and equipment, the same as their dayworker counterparts.

The bad. If your employees work shifts, you face the major challenge of creating a safety program that can ensure the safety and health of workers without exception at any time of the day or night and on holidays and weekends, as well as during normal business hours. That's no easy task when you consider the fact that shift work often creates new and different hazards. There are many reasons for this:

  • The type of work may be different. Sometimes work involving heavy machinery, hazardous materials, or maintenance of dangerous equipment is scheduled at night when not many people are around.
  • It's harder to see at night. If lighting is inadequate, the risk of a shift worker tripping and falling or being struck by an object (two of the most common causes of accidents) increases dramatically. Furthermore, driving a vehicle is more dangerous when it's dark outside.
  • Shift work may create health problems. Shift work schedules can play havoc with employee's body rhythms and result in sleep loss, disorientation, confusion, and safety problems. In addition, shift workers are more prone to gastrointestinal disorders and depression, and may also be more likely candidates for substance abuse.
  • You may be dealing with less-experienced employees. Often shift workers are younger and less aware of safety issues. The same is sometimes true of their supervisors.
  • Shift workers are simply tired and sleepy. Fatigue is the biggest safety problem for shift workers. And they are most at risk between the hours of 1 a.m. and 6 a.m., the first two night shifts after working days or after several days off, near the end of a shift when activity levels are high in the work area, and driving home after a shift.
Why It Matters...
  • Many of the worst industrial accidents have been directly related to shift work.
  • In one study, 53 percent of shift workers admitted that they'd witnessed poor safety practices or accidents due to fatigue.
  • Other studies show that the number of serious accidents on the night shift is much higher than on the day shift.

The ugly. Although shift workers are often the employees who most need safety training, their training needs are sometimes only partially or erratically met, or worse, ignored altogether—because of the hours they work.

One of the greatest safety hazards facing any 24/7 operation is the tendency to focus safety efforts on the day shift because of the convenience of conducting training, inspections, maintenance, and so forth during the day when management works. This type of near-sightedness, however, can have costly consequences on other shifts, including greater risk-taking and higher accident rates.

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