If you are reading this article, that chances are that you are one of the 3.6million people in the UK who regularly work shifts. That includes the North Sea offshore industry.
A wide range of industries have to deliver services 24/7, relying on the continuity provided by shift-working, including the oil&gas industry, manufacturing, health services and transport.
However, research suggests that there is a downside to shift work, particularly night and early morning shifts which disrupt the “body clock” more, causing fatigue and loss of concentration which can increase the risk of accidents and injuries.
The disruption to daily eating and sleep routines can also lead to health problems for the individual worker, such as:
Sleep deficit and fatigue – those who have to sleep during the day often have difficulties as their body clock doesn’t adjust completely, affecting quality and duration of sleep.
Stomach complaints such as dyspepsia and ulcers, thought to be due to irregular eating patterns.
Heart disease – a number of studies have shown an increased risk of heart disease and, in 2005, a study on offshore oil workers found that those who worked a shift pattern of seven 12-hour nights followed by seven 12-hour days had higher levels of blood fatty acids after meals – which is a risk factor for diabetes, heart disease and other metabolic disorders – than those who remained on continuous nights or days.
Psychological problems arising from the disruption to family and social life, and the risk of increased alcohol and drug misuse.
It has been reported that shift work can reduce life expectancy by five years, so perhaps it’s no wonder that only about 10% of shift workers like it, 20-30% actively dislike it and the rest just put up with it.
People’s ability to cope depends on age, health, fitness and lifestyle.
If you are a night owl, it is likely you will have less of a problem with shifts than if you prefer to get up early and go to bed early.
Regular exercise can help you adapt, as can eating healthily and avoiding heavy meals, caffeine and alcohol before bedtime.
Regular light meals or snacks with plenty of fruit and vegetables, bread, rice or pasta are easy to digest and release energy slowly.
Daytime sleep may be improved by ensuring you have peace and quiet, and consider blackout blinds if light disturbs you.
Under health and safety legislation – Management of Health and Safety at Work regulations and Working Time regulations – employers have responsibilities to assess and manage the risks of shift work.
When organising and planning shifts, there are a number of factors to consider, such as the work activity, the shift timing and duration, the number and lengths of breaks between shifts and the direction of rotation.
Advancing shift patterns, which move forward from early shift to late, then nights, have been shown to be easier for the body to adapt to and are less likely to cause fatigue.
As well as relevant guidance, the Health and Safety Executive has also developed a free assessment tool, the Fatigue and Risk Index, which can be used to compare different shift patterns in terms of risk of fatigue.
If the Working Time regulations apply, employers also have to offer their workers a “health assessment”.
This is normally in the form of a confidential health questionnaire which is screened by an occupational health provider, with medical follow-up of employees who indicate they have a health problem which might be affected by shift work.
It is not unusual for shift workers to report health problems, but generally these can be managed by giving advice on healthy eating and tips for better sleep.
Occasionally, shift work can be more problematic – for example, those who require to take regular medication, such as insulin-dependent diabetics, who may need more specialised advice regarding managing their condition to take account of their working pattern.
For further advice on night work health assessments, contact Abermed on 01224 788800, or visit www.abermed.com
More tips on coping with shift work can be found at www.hse.gov.uk/humanfactors/shiftwork/tips, or see www.sleepcouncil.com/SleepAdvice
Dr Elizabeth Wright is a director and senior consultant occupational physician at Abermed, one of the leading UK-based providers of industrial and occupational healthcare, providing health and medical services to the global oil&gas industry