Most people work in regular, eight-hour shifts during daylight hours. They also get an overnight break that gives them a respite from job pressures and enables them to sleep, for a while at least. But what about people who are working extended hours under stressful conditions, such as utility workers trying to restore electrical service after a severe storm? Or police officers who are dealing with a hostage situation? Or firefighters who are suppressing a major fire?
Stress and fatigue can increase the likelihood of work injuries
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) notes that people working for extended periods of time or under stressful or unusual conditions face a heightened risk of injury. They can experience significantly more physical, mental, or emotional stress, which in turn can impair their concentration and increase the chance of a physical injury or susceptibility to physical illness. Fatigue caused by lack of sleep can cause mental problems, such as depression, lack of motivation, and reduced ability to concentrate.
Even starting on a non-stressful job on a regular, overnight shift can cause sleep disruptions that in turn adversely affects the physical stamina and mental health of a worker. In a brief article on unusual or extended shifts, OSHA notes that adjusting to an overnight shift can take up to 10 days.
Addressing the problem
In addition to providing insights into the problems caused by unusual or extended shifts, the article also describes some steps employers and employees can take to minimize the possibility of work injuries:
- Employers should limit the number extended shifts, as well as increasing the amount of break time or the number of breaks for workers.
- Supervisors should monitor employees working on extended shifts for signs of fatigue, such as inability to concentrate or irritability. They should provide those workers with additional break time.
- Management should ensure that there is adequate number of workers for the task at hand, and bring in additional workers when necessary.
- Workers should perform physically demanding tasks or those requiring intense concentration early in a shift.
- Where workers are deployed in remote locations, such as those fighting forest fires, employers should provide a quiet area where workers can rest and recuperate.
- Emergency responders should not wear some types of protective equipment for extended periods of time.
Workers who suffer physical injuries or mental health issues caused by extended or unusual shifts may be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. They should speak with an attorney if they have been denied benefits or those benefits have been prematurely terminated.