Q&A: Shift Work and Health Problems

By Fiona Burns
14 Feb 2019

Q: We have a number of employees who work on a shift pattern. I wish to ensure that we are doing all that is practicable to reduce the potential negative health problems of shift work. Could you suggest what action we can take?

A: Several studies have suggested links between shift work and increased likelihood of suffering from conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and depression. A prominent adverse effect of shift work is the impact it has on the circadian rhythms — the internal biological clock which regulates bodily functions: temperature, metabolism, digestion and blood pressure, secretion of adrenalin, sleeping and waking. Psychosocial effects include sleep loss, fatigue and stress.

A hierarchy of control approach can be used to control the negative health problems associated with shift work in the same way as other work hazards. However, where it cannot be controlled the HSE recommend a “best practice” management approach towards minimising the impact of shift work, which can assist in minimising potential health problems. Action to take includes:

  • careful planning of shift rosters, taking into account knowledge of the effects of biological rhythms
  • education of shift workers on sleep routines, nutrition, exercise and the effects on family and social life
  • environmental design changes, especially those aspects which can improve alertness such as temperature, lighting and comfort levels
  • providing medical advice for shift workers, particularly for those with existing health conditions.

As part of health promotion, shift workers can be advised on how to cope with the demands of the job, including advice on dealing with sleep problems, healthy eating, physical fitness and the importance of maintaining social contact.

It is not always possible to prevent shift work-related problems, therefore it is very important to have systems in place for reporting and investigating any health related issues that may occur.

As some workers may be reluctant to report problems, it is vital that management and safety representatives emphasise and promote the benefits of early reporting. Key groups such as supervisors or shift managers can play a major role in this, and can be provided with the appropriate instruction and information to encourage early reporting.

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About the Author

Fiona Burns

Fiona Burns has practical experience in Health & Safety and Risk Management having worked for major insurer prior to joining Croner.

She has gained extensive helpline experience offering competent advice and timely support to large number of clients, in various industries and at all levels.  Completed the NEBOSH General Certificate, also passed NEBOSH Environmental Diploma Unit A, (IOSH Managing Environmental responsibilities). NEBOSH Fire and Risk Management Certificate, FPA Advance Fire Training, NCRQ Diploma – Distinction currently completing IPD and volunteering for Community project in Atherstone also as a Dementia support worker with CWPT.


Fiona Burns

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