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NIOSH Suggests Approaches on Shiftwork to Reduce Worker Fatigue, Stress

NIOSH Update:

Contact: Fred Blosser (202) 260-8519
November 4, 1997

Ways of administering or coping with shiftwork are suggested in a new publication from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to decrease the health and safety problems associated with working evening, night, or rotating hours.

About 15.5 million people in the U.S. work such shifts, according to the publication, Plain Language About Shiftwork. These schedules may disrupt the body’s internal circadian rhythm and result in sleep loss. Being overly tired can make it difficult to concentrate, increasing the possibility of error or job-related injury. Digestive problems, heart problems, and stresses from interference with family and social life also have been shown to be associated with shiftwork.

“Working non-traditional shifts is a common and often necessary part of many jobs, but businesses and individuals can take many practical steps to reduce the detrimental effects of shiftwork on worker safety and health,” said NIOSH Director Linda Rosenstock, M.D., M.P.H.

The publication suggests a wide range of strategies that employers and workers can adopt to ease the burdens associated with shiftwork. For example:

  • As appropriate, employers might consider changes in shiftwork schedules — such as considering alternatives to permanent night shifts, avoiding quick shift changes, and adjusting shift length to the workload. Whether a particular change is useful depends on the specific work situation. When changing employees’ work schedules, all aspects of the worker’s job and home life should be considered, the publication suggests.
  • Other potentially useful steps include scheduling heavy or demanding work at times when workers are most alert or at peak performance, providing training or awareness programs for new shiftworkers and their families, and ensuring that health care and counseling services are available to employees who work non-traditional schedules.
  • Employees may consider various ways for coping with shiftwork, such as increasing their awareness of the need to get good sleep, establishing the sleep routine that works best for the individual, and looking at the utility of exercise, diet, and relaxation techniques for helping resist stress.

Bright lights also might be used to adjust the body’s circadian rhythm and change the times of an individual’s peak alertness, but this strategy takes expert planning and may not be practical for some shift workers. Melatonin has received attention as a sleep aid, but research is insufficient at this time to recommend melatonin as a regular aid for shift workers, the publication also finds.

NIOSH is the only federal agency mandated to conduct occupational safety and health research and training. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., it is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Copies of Plain Language About Shiftwork, NIOSH (DHHS) Publication No. 97-145, are available at no charge by calling the toll-free NIOSH information number, 1-800-35-NIOSH (1-800-356-4674). For other information about NIOSH research, call the toll-free number.