Sometimes when I am presenting different schedule ideas, I am asked about the safety implications of working different types of schedules. It takes me back to the roots of Coleman Consulting Group, which was formed almost thirty-five years ago by sleep researchers who wanted to study the impact work schedules can have on fatigue and accident rates. All these years have revealed that there is no easy answer, but there is much that can be learned and used to improve current practices.
Some work environments are inherently dangerous. For that matter, people are 8 times more likely to die in a car accident than at work. If we wanted to be safer, we would just stay at home and avoid the perils of driving accidents. Obviously, staying home is not a realistic solution. Although there are many issues that can make a work schedule more or less safe, I have consistently seen the top three are 1) average hour worked per week by employees over an extended period, 2) poor circadian alignment and the work/home interface, and 3) the workplace safety culture.
Work hours are the easiest to quantify. Empirical data clearly shows a dramatic increase in fatigue and productivity losses when people work more than 48 to 50 hours per week for five or more consecutive weeks. I’m always amazed at what humans can achieve for short periods…but after about five weeks of extended work, “the wheels start to come off the wagon.” That means that if people are worked too hard, after a certain point, you can add more hours, but the output will be less. Yes, I have seen employees produce less working more hours than if they worked fewer hours each week. Fatigue related issues are even more disturbing. I have seen increased accident rates, lost time accidents, and employee turnover through the roof when organizations run high levels of overtime for extended periods. Pay, such as overtime and double time, makes it worse by incenting workers to ignore the warnings and keep working longer. The environment can help, but only limits the severity of incidents, not the number of incidents themselves. In a massive copper mine, a driver who falls asleep could run off a cliff – and it happens. I have had the sad task of trying to find solutions when it does. We make fun of the office worker who might nod off and bump their head on the desk, but their excessive work hours are just as dangerous – remember they have to drive home on roads where they are 8 times more likely to die than at work.
Poor circadian alignment is a little more difficult to quantify. Everyone hates the night shift and knows it is less healthy right? Not true. Just over 10% of the US factory workforce will select a “graveyard” shift given a choice between day, afternoon, and night shifts. Many of those people report getting good sleep. They have learned how to adjust their internal biological clock to be alert in the middle of the night and asleep during the day. Afternoon shift workers often report getting more sleep than those on day shift. The difficulty with making round the clock schedules work is that most people do prefer the day shift. And many of them are driven to “live” on the day shift when they are on their days off. What does that mean? When I was a shift worker, I remember coming home in the early morning, crawling into bed around dawn, and an hour later my little girl sitting on me asking me to get up. Hard to turn down. Luckily my wife would take her away and let me sleep a little. By 10:00 a.m. she was getting me out of bed…” we have things to do”… “are you going to sleep the whole day away?” I didn’t want to miss a day off, so I was up with three or four hours of sleep. Guess what? That scenario plays out in houses all across America every day. Building the right schedule means taking into account how people are going to rotate from their days off on day shift onto a night shift. By understanding how the biological clock ticks, schedules that makes sense can be set up properly.
Workplace safety culture is a real thing. When you go someplace with real safety culture, you know you are there. People ask you to put on your eyewear if they see you’ve forgotten. They aren’t doing it because they are afraid of repercussions, but they know it is the right thing to do to stay safe. I remember walking through a soup plant in Canada, and I had propped my safety glasses on top of my head when I walked into an office. I walked out and forgot to pull them back down. I walked about fifty feet, and one of the normal shift employees walked up to me and kindly reminded me I needed to have my safety glasses on. In this safe work culture, people will stop if they see a problem and bring it to the attention of management. Managers are expected to care and do something about it. Working in this culture has many benefits, one is that high overtime levels would raise concerns long before they got out of hand. And if the schedule is not allowing them to be safe, these organizations are quick to call in outside help. These are the projects my fellow consultants at Coleman Consulting Group, and I look forward to because we know everyone will be engaged in the process. We know our health and safety circle is just as important as the business needs and employee desires.