Apr 11, 2008

What are the health effects of shiftwork? What to do while we still have no answer to this question

On the same day earlier this week I came across two posts on the internet, both from Toronto.

"People who perform shift work do not appear to face any additional risk of death from heart disease than people who work regular office hours, a recent study in the journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine shows. "
Source: Heart & Stroke Foundation (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

"Disruption of an individual's natural sleep-wake cycle has been determined to be a contributing factor in the development of organ disease. The findings of U of T researchers were recently published in the Journal of American Physiology."
Source: University of Toronto (Ontario, Canada)
So what's a shiftworker to do?
This isn't easy, and it's far from clear. Common sense suggests that for most people there is a possibility of health consequences of shiftwork. We have evolved over too long a period of time to sleep at night to have things change over the course of 100 years. Assuming there are consequences, we don't have a good idea yet of what that means for a typical shiftworker. Given economic realities, employers aren't going to return to working only day shifts, and workers aren't going to turn down the premium pay that often comes with shiftwork jobs.
So, in the absence of definitive scientific findings, taking reasonable precautions is the prudent approach. Getting proper sleep and exercise. Eating well and managing caffeine usage.
For employers, making sure your shift schedules are as good as possible (forward rotating, appropriate start times, etc), that your work environment promotes alertness, that you have plans in place to help fatigued workers, that you provide adequate shiftworker lifestyle training, etc. is all important.

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