Ask any shift worker about a typical shift and they will tell you the same thing: no two shifts are ever alike.
Shift workers often enjoy the variety provided to them and the changing landscape. They might also tell you that it can be challenging and exhausting, but at the same time incredibly rewarding.
Shift work can be split into two or three separate shifts that, when combined, make up the 24 hours in a day. In some cases where there are three longer shifts, some hours will overlap.
Shifts can be split into day and night shifts, or day, night and overnight shifts.
Shift work could look something like this…
Day shift: 5am-5pm
This roster structure allows for several hours of overlap between shifts. Overlapping hours during all three 12-hour shifts can support staff and operations during busier periods.
Day shift: 6am-6pm
These two 12-hour shifts make up the 24 hours in a day with no overlapping hours. This is specifically in use if there is a limited number of vehicles or machinery and the company operates their whole fleet 24-hours a day.
Day shift: 5am-1pm
This type of roster shows how three equal 8-hour shifts perfectly make up 24 hours, with no overlap. Again this might be because there is a limited number of vehicles or machinery and they are operating the entire fleet 24-hours a day.
12-hour shifts have become the norm in many 24-hour operations, as more hours worked in fewer shifts usually means more days off in between shifts. From a managerial point of view, 12-hour shifts are also usually easier to roster.
But do 12-hour shifts pose a risk to employees? Whether it’s a nurse making critical decisions at 4 in the morning, during the final few hours of their gruelling 12-hour shift, or a mine worker struggling through a long shift after a poor rest in the preceding days or weeks, longer shifts increase fatigue and the risk of a drowsy episode. Along with fatigue come the inevitable effects that include slower reaction times and a higher risk of error or injury.
Those who work in emergency and rapid response industries generally know their roster several weeks in advance, which makes planning and management a little easier. And it’s not just the shift worker that has to deal with tricky shifts: their families, too, need to support their line of work and adapt to these more unusual hours.
Stage one: preparing for night shift
Leading up to a shift, it’s important shift workers give themselves an adequate opportunity to get good quality rest.
The first place to start is at home: shift workers need to ensure their bedroom is comfortable, cool, and dark. They know to avoid curling up on the couch to catch a few ZZZs, which can potentially affect their ability to sleep later in the day and typically they need to teach themselves that the bedroom is the only place for good quality sleep.
Preparing for night shift means sleeping during the day, which against the body’s natural rhythm, can be tough. So in instances where shift workers struggle to stay in bed in the morning, they can take advantage of any built-up fatigue through a late afternoon nap. This is difficult though if they have children at home or they live in an area prone to day-time noise and activity.
Sufficient rest between shifts
The quality of rest workers receive during their days off is directly linked to health and their ability to perform well at work.
Sufficient rest between shifts often falls outside of an employer’s scope in many industries, as companies are limited by how much control they can exert on how a shift worker spends their time when they are not at work.
A good shift worker takes responsibility for this time spent outside of work. They continuously manage fatigue, allowing themselves to receive the best possible rest in between shifts.
Stage two: commuting to the shift
By this stage, we hope shift workers have proactively worked towards getting the maximum of good quality sleep leading up to their shift.
While commuting to work, they should feel confident they are energised, alert and well rested. Depending on the length of the commute however, it can affect their overall alertness during and after they have finished their shift. Long commutes before and after work all contribute to the person’s overall fatigue or drowsiness risk and some companies overcome this by arranging transport to and from site for them.
Stage three: during the shift
Depending on the line of work, shift workers may find themselves performing tasks requiring different levels concentration. A few examples are touched on below.
Security guards must remain alert at all times, detecting unusual behaviour in their immediate surrounds. Security is one of those jobs that is only stressful when something untoward and unexpected happens. While this is a good thing, there’s no denying much of security work can be dull and therefore increases the risk of drowsiness regardless of the quality and quantity of sleep they have received.
High impact operations include energy, mining and oil and gas industries. Depending on the role, often workers are required to make critical decisions with wide ranging impacts if not made correctly and within standardised procedures.
Without sufficient rest leading up to a shift (and in between shifts) the risk of injury or a lapse in judgement increases. This blog post highlights the role of fatigue in some of the world’s biggest disasters, including Chernobyl and the Challenger disaster.
Pilots and other travel:
The air industry never sleeps.
Whether it’s a flight halfway around the world or a quick trip interstate, pilot fatigue is one of the biggest concerns in this industry. Irregular hours, long commute times and half a dozen time zones can mess horribly with one’s circadian rhythm.
Similarly, public transport services can run at all hours in order to make use of downtime where guests can nap in comfort as their driver transports them between major cities.
While great for commuters, it once again raises the question around the driver and whether they have adequately rested leading up to a long drive.
We rely on medical professionals at all hours of the day and night, should we or someone close to us require urgent medical attention. Nurses and doctors are some of the hardest working individuals, working long shifts at all hours to deliver us the support we need.
Nursing shifts vary depending on the facility, but it is common for medical staff to work gruelling 12-hour shifts. As mentioned above, this is a popular solution as it results in more days off between shifts.
Stage four: travelling home after an overnight shift
The trip home after a night shift is perhaps the most dangerous times to be behind the wheel. Your reaction times and concentration are significantly worse compared to other times of the day.
Shift workers are one of a few groups more susceptible to have a drowsiness-related accident (other groups include males and adults aged between 18 and 29). As such, the commute home, especially during the early hours in the morning following an overnight shift, is one of the most dangerous times to be driving.
Are your shift workers at risk?
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