Jan 4, 2008

Shiftwork training to improve alertness and safety on the night shift

Safe operations depend on three factors: performance, attentiveness and alertness. Managers responsible for ensuring safety traditionally focus resources on performance. Most employers have elaborate hiring procedures for selecting people with the aptitude and experience to do the job. In many cases, these people have already spent time and money on their own education.

Managers are somewhat less focused on ensuring attentiveness. To varying degrees, managers monitor and control the factors that contribute to worker attentiveness--workload, motivation, and distractions. They have performance reviews and compensation plans. They provide productivity-enhancing tools and conduct workflow studies to simplify jobs and allow workers to focus.

But management attention has, for the most part, been nonexistent when it comes to alertness. And yet fatigue impairs judgment, which imperils the lives of employees, not to mention the financial health of the organization.

Most companies take employee alertness as a variable factor over which they have no control. This may have been true at one time, but it is not true today. There is now a sizable body of research that enables people to better understand, and so control, the elements of alertness.
Any system is only as strong as its weakest link. Everyone knows this to be true. And yet, companies may spend millions of dollars on training and spend nothing on how to live the life that accompanies the job.

If you think of humans as computers, the typical training we provide is like software. It helps people process data and provide an appropriate output. Unlike a computer, however, humans' ability to process data quickly and accurately is affected by their alertness. The missing element is training shiftworkers to enable them to maintain alertness at required levels.

This is not a radical new concept. In organizations across North America, health awareness and wellness programs are already in place. These programs are an effort to improve work performance and workers' quality of life by encouraging exercise, weight loss, better sleep habits, quitting smoking, etc. These wellness programs fall short, however, for the 20 percent of the workforce that works non-traditional hours. What makes sense for daytime workers may not make sense, or may be impractical, for night shift workers. The solution is alertness and safety training that is specifically created for night shift workers.

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