Feb 17, 2008

Management tips for improving shiftwork schedules

In the transportation industries, there are hours of work rules -- truck drivers, airline pilots, and others have constraints on their work schedules. And, some states have laws that establish rules governing some aspects of shiftwork, such as overtime pay and child labor laws.

Other than these regulations, there is little legal guidance for managers in 24/7 operations to help design a work schedule to reduce stress or fatigue. Some companies may have established work rules, and unions may have negotiated rules to govern shiftwork practices in some cases.

Nevertheless, research has suggested that work schedules can be improved. Older, poorly designed work schedules might even be dangerous because new technologies can change both the physical and mental demands placed on a worker. A well-designed work schedule can improve health and safety, worker satisfaction, and productivity. Therefore, a good work schedule is an advantage for both the organization and the worker.

WARNING: Because work schedules can have a direct impact on worker health and safety as well family and social life, shiftworkers can have understandably strong responses to changes in shift schedules.

Changing a schedule is not easy and must be handled carefully. Don't rush. Communicate with all affected constituencies -- managers, workers (and possibly their family members), union leadership, HR, benefits, compensation, industry regulators (if applicable) -- early and throughout the entire process. It may be VERY helpful to work with a consultant, as a neutral third-party, when making shift schedule changes.

Designing a work schedule has a large and immediate impact on all workers, and their family members. All people on the job must abide by the work hours, or they will lose their jobs. Also, working hours affect how people arrange the rest of their lives.

So any time a work schedule is changed, many aspects of job life and home life must be considered. You may want to make any work schedule change temporary at first and evaluate it carefully. The benefits of the change must outweigh the possible negative aspects. If it really is a change for the better, then it can be established on a permanent basis. Because such a change is complex, it is a good idea to consult ergonomics, or human factors, specialists for help in work schedule design and evaluation.

Tips for managers for improving shiftwork schedules
Given the limited amount of knowledge and research at this time, these should be considered as suggestions and not as strict guidelines or regulations. Remember, all aspects of job and home life must be considered when changing a work schedule. Some suggestions may be useful in a particular work situation, and some may not.
• Avoid permanent (fixed or non-rotating) night shift
• Keep consecutive night shifts to a minimum
• Avoid quick shift changes
• Plan some free weekends
• 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 the schedule regular and predictable
• Pay attention to break times

Consider alternatives to permanent (fixed or non-rotating) night shift: Most workers never really get used to night shift because they go back to a daytime schedule on their days off. Also, some workers on fixed night shifts lose contact with management and the rest of the workers in the organization. They may end up feeling too isolated or somehow “different” from the rest of the workers. This could make communication difficult.

If possible, consider a rotating night shift schedule, but take measures to ease the burdens often experienced in the typical weekly shift rotation. Some suggestions for making rotation less taxing are given below. Sometimes, of course, that permanent night shift is the only choice, such as in a nighttime security guard job.

Keep consecutive night shifts to a minimum: Some researchers suggest that only 2 to 4 nights in a row should be worked before a couple of days off. This keeps circadian rhythms from being overly disturbed and limits sleep loss.

Avoid quick shift changes: A break of only seven to ten hours should be avoided before rotating to a new shift, such as going from morning to night shift on the same day of the week. With so quick a change, it is difficult to get much rest before going back to work. On return to work after a quick change, most people are very tired and sleepy. At the end of a night shift, at least 24 hours are recommended before rotating to another shift. Some researchers even suggest that 48 hours should be the minimum between shifts.

Plan some free weekends: If a seven-days-per-week schedule is required, allow one or two full weekends off each month. Loss of contact with friends and family is a major problem for shiftworkers. Weekends are the best time to meet family and friends who are on a day schedule.

Avoid several days of work followed by four- to seven-day “mini-vacations”: Working several days in a row followed by several days off can be very fatiguing. For example, some schedules require 10 to 14 days of work followed by five to seven days off. Frequent “mini-vacations” are well liked by some workers, especially younger ones. However, older workers find it difficult to recover during the mini-vacations before they return to another long spell of work. Poor recovery from fatigue can produce accidents and damage health. A long work spell should be used only when there is no other choice, such as when long travel distances are required to do the work (e.g., mining or oil exploration).

Keep long work shifts and overtime to a minimum: Extra work hours add to fatigue. They also allow less rest time per day. If 12-hour shifts are used, two or three 12-hour shifts in a row should be the maximum. Two in a row is probably best for night shift. One or two days off should follow these night shifts.

Consider different lengths for shifts: Try adjusting shift length to the workload. Heavy physical or mental work or monotonous boring work is especially difficult at night. Maybe night shifts could be shorter. If possible, move heavy work to shorter shifts and lighter work to longer shifts.

Examine start-end times: Flexible start-end times, or “flextime,” can be useful for those with child care needs or a long commute time. Consider moving shift start-end times away from rush hour. Morning shifts should not start too early (5 to 6 a.m.) because night sleep often is cut short before an early shift.

Keep the schedule regular and predictable: Workers should know their schedule well ahead of time, so they can plan their rest, child care, and contact with family and friends. Studies of train accidents showed that very irregular schedules contributed to the accidents by producing sleep loss and fatigue.

Pay attention to break time: Sometimes the standard lunch and coffee break are not enough to recover from fatigue. For example, card dealers in gambling casinos get a 10 to 15 minute break every hour because their jobs require so much concentration. If their concentration is low, it is easier for a player to cheat at cards, and the casino will lose money. In jobs requiring repetitive physical work, brief rest breaks each hour seem to be best for recovery from muscle fatigue.

Source: Plain Language About Shiftwork (NIOSH)

Related posts:
* Why managers in 24/7 need to pay attention to the special needs of shiftworkers
* Shiftwork schedules: fixed or rotating
* Hiring shiftworkers: best practices for managers in 24/7 operations
* Adapting to night shifts -- helping shiftworkers adapt and avoid shiftworker maladaptation
* Best practices for managing a shiftwork operation

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