Jan 6, 2008

Shiftworker lifestyle training: fatigue countermeasures, sleep strategies, and more

From time to time articles appear in the general press about the dangers of shiftwork. It's important to understand the risks, but it's equally important to focus on practical steps to improve the health, safety and work performance of shiftworkers in 24/7 operations. One relatively easy, and relatively inexpensive step 24/7 business operators can take is to provide their employees with shiftworker lifestyle training.

Shiftworkers' alertness, hence their ability to perform effectively, is dependent on many factors. Some of those factors are beyond their control, such as their work schedule, but others are directly affected by the individual's actions. Lifestyle training means giving workers the knowledge they need to make appropriate adjustments to their lives in order to ensure health and safety.

As the name suggests, successful lifestyle training affects a worker's entire life, not merely his or her time at work. Adjustments on the part of shiftworkers will therefore be contingent upon acceptance by spouses and family members who also will be affected. For this reason, we recommend including spouses in lifestyle training whenever possible.

Lifestyle training should start with a non-technical discussion of circadian rhythms and how they effect human alertness. Shiftworkers, whether nurses, police officers, pilots, factory workers, or whomever, must understand there is a fundamental difference between day shift work and night shift work. Humans have evolved over millions of years to be awake during the day and asleep at night. Unless shiftworkers acknowledge this basic fact, the rest of the training process is meaningless.

After this first step, lifestyle training should address the following areas and provide specific details on fatigue countermeasures:

Seven or eight hours of uninterrupted sleep are important to everyone's health and well-being. Our bodies are not programmed to sleep during the day. As a result, daytime sleep typically reduces both the quantity and quality of sleep. Making sure the sleeping room is dark, quiet, well-ventilated, and not too warm is an important step. A high-quality mattress also improves sleep.

People who work the night shift need to know about general nutrition, but that alone is not enough. Our bodies simply were not designed to eat at night. Your stomach won't digest full meals, so you should eat in smaller portions. Spicy, rich, and fatty foods are particularly hard to handle at night. Careless eating habits can cause indigestion, discomfort, drowsiness, and weight gain.

Family and social life
All shiftworkers have to think about many things differently than 9-to-5 workers. This is particularly true if you are trying to maintain a family and social life. Celebrating holidays a week early, videotaping children's birthday parties, and breakfast dates are just some of the accommodations you can make to keep connected to the rest of your life. People who emphasize communication and plan effectively have shown that work and family can mix and that single people can have a social life.

Job performance and safety
You need to emphasize safety because accidents are more likely to occur at night than on other shifts. One study found the number of accidents is 23 percent higher on the night shift. With knowledge of the factors that affect alertness, you can avoid safety lapses, improve work performance, and prevent falling asleep at the wheel.

Lifestyle training improves job performance, as well as employees' health, safety, and quality of life. This has been most thoroughly documented in a report on CANALERT '95, an alertness assurance program funded by Canada's three largest railroads, which took before-and-after measurements of a broad range of criteria. [More about CANALERT '95 at the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers website or at Railway Age.]

The improved health and quality of life, in turn, improve morale and tend to lower absenteeism and turnover rates. Absenteeism and turnover are particularly problematic in round-the-clock operations because of the difficulty of getting substitute workers on short notice and training new workers in a continuous operation environment.

Shiftworkers: have you received some sort of lifestyle training? Was it helpful? Did it include your spouse?

24/7 Managers: does your company provide shiftworker lifestyle training? What are the costs and benefits?

Share your opinions and experiences. Post a comment now.

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