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New guidance on managing shift work

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has produced a new book that aims to improve the understanding of shift work and its impact on health and safety. More than 3.5 million people are employed as shift workers in the UK. They work in a wide variety of industries including the emergency services, healthcare, the utilities, transport, manufacturing, entertainment and retail. Poorly designed shift-working arrangements and/or long working hours may put them at risk of fatigue, accidents, injuries and ill health.

Managing Shift Work: Health and Safety Guidance is aimed at anyone with an interest in reducing the health and safety risks associated with shift work. This could include senior management, human resources, health and safety officers, occupational health advisors, trade union representatives, supervisors or shift workers themselves.

The book explains why we should be concerned about shift work, drawing on the evidence available in the scientific literature. It goes on to set out an approach to managing the risks from shift work and provides useful advice and good practice guidelines to help inform the design or redesign of shift work rotas.

The key issues

Research has shown that shifts, particularly night and early morning shifts, can have undesirable consequences for workers including disruption of the internal body clock, sleeping difficulties and fatigue. These in turn can affect performance, increase the likelihood of errors and accidents at work and might affect health and well-being.

Reducing the risks associated with shift work and fatigue can improve the health and safety of workers and may also financially benefit business and society in general by reducing sickness, injuries and accidents, and by increasing work efficiency and product quality.

Regulation and control of the risks associated with shift work

In the UK, there is no specific health & safety legislation on shift working. Nevertheless employers have general health & safety responsibilities (e.g. a duty of care in law) for their employees and others. This includes removing or controlling the risks of fatigue by properly organising and planning shift-working arrangements. Their broader responsibility for the health and safety of others (e.g. the public) who might be affected by their work activities provides another reason why it is important to control fatigue.

There are many different shift work-schedules and each schedule has different features. This sheer diversity of work and workplaces mean that there is no single optimal shift system that suits everyone. However, a planned and systematic approach to assessing and managing the risks of shift work can improve the health and safety of workers. HSE's new book, Managing Shift Work: Health and Safety Guidance includes a simple five-step approach that employers could use for this purpose.

There are a number of key risk factors in shift schedule design, which must be considered when assessing and managing the risks of shift work. These are the workload, the work activity, shift timing and duration, direction of rotation and the number and length of breaks during and between shifts. Other features of the workplace environment such as the physical environment, management issues and employee welfare can also contribute to the risks associated with shift work.

All the key risk factors are covered in detail in the guidance, which provides practical advice on how to reduce the risks associated with them. This advice is also summarised in the form of best practice guidelines.

Copies of Managing Shift Work: Health and Safety Guidance, (HSG 256) ISBN 0 7176 6197 0, priced £9.95 are available from HSE books. Readers may also find it useful to use assessment tools such as HSE's Fatigue and Risk Index Tool, to compare alternative patterns and help identify whether any particular aspect of an existing or proposed working time pattern is likely to increase the risk of fatigue.