Getting a handle on shift work

How to avoid the negative effects on workers.

Shift work is a reality for about 25% of the North American working population and with more occupations and industries operating around the clock, this number is not likely to decrease.

Circadian rhythms are our body’s biological clocks that manage various internal functions throughout a 24-hour day, using daylight and darkness as cues. Working during the night and sleeping during the day is contrary to our natural rhythm, which disrupts sleep and the body’s recovery from physical and mental activity during these “opposite” hours.

Risks associated with shift work include: shorter sleeps and/or poorer sleep quality than regular day workers; a higher risk of breast cancer and an elevated risk of other types of cancer; an increased risk of heart disease; some studies indicate a higher risk of pre-term delivery, gastrointestinal disorders, and mental health problems; a higher risk of workplace injury than morning or afternoon shift workers; and shifting schedules increase injury risk.

Here are some tips for employers that will reduce risks associated with shift work:

• Avoid permanent (fixed or non-rotating) night shifts.

• Keep consecutive night shifts to a minimum.

• Avoid quick shift changes.

• Free weekends are better than a single day off.

• Avoid several days of work followed by four- to seven-day “mini-vacations”.

• Keep long work shifts and overtime to a minimum.

• Consider different lengths for shifts.

• Examine start-end times.

• Keep schedules regular and predictable.

• Conduct a risk assessment for every task to be performed during a specific shift.

• Night shifts should not be too long and should end as early as possible so workers get more undisturbed sleep.

• Make shift changes easily adaptable. ‘Rotating forward’ (morning – afternoon – night) are easier to adapt to than rotating backwards or having irregular shift changes.

• Morning shifts should not start too early.

• Consult workers when setting shift schedules.

• Avoid scheduling the same worker to more than one shift a day.

There are steps that shift workers can take with their diet, sleep and social life to help preserve their health.


• Afternoon workers should have a meal in the middle of the day instead of the middle of their work shift.

• Night workers should eat lightly throughout the shift.

• Relax during meals and allow time for digestion.

• Drink lots of water.

• Cut back on foods that are highly salted and those high in fat.

• Maintain regular eating patterns with well balanced meals.

• Minimize the intake of caffeine and alcohol.

• Avoid fast food and vending machine food.


• Have a comfortable, quiet place to sleep during the day.

• Air conditioning, foam ear plugs and good blinds may help.

• Make time for quiet relaxation before bed.

• Sleep on a set schedule to help establish a routine.

• Avoid strenuous exercise before sleeping.

• If you don’t fall asleep after one hour, read a book or listen to quiet music.

• If you still can’t sleep, reschedule sleeping hours for later in the day.


• Schedule at least one daily meal with the family.

• Keep in touch with your spouse and children daily.

• Set time aside for just you and your spouse.

• Plan family activities.

• Pay close attention to physical fitness.

• Try to reduce your stress.

Taking steps to minimize risks will ensure workers are healthier and safe.

Click here for more information about the CCOHS.



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