Worker fatigue | The health and safety hazards of shift work

Over 3.5 million people or around 14% of the UK working population work shifts.

Many industries, including hospitality, manufacturing and retail, rely heavily on shift work: work that is undertaken on a schedule outside of the traditional 9am to 5pm working day. However, poorly-designed or long shift patterns that fail to balance work demands with rest and recovery time can invite fatigue, accidents, injuries and ill health. 

Fatigue typically involves a drop in mental and/or physical performance. It is the result of continued exertion, sleep loss and/or a disrupted internal clock. It is also workload-related, in that workers are more easily fatigued when work is machine-paced, complex or repetitive.

The dangers of worker fatigue

Fatigue can cause a wide range of other physical, mental and emotional symptoms. As well as the physical effects of fatigue, including headaches, dizziness, sore or aching muscles and muscle weakness, and emotional effects such as moodiness and irritability, fatigue can lead to impaired cognitive function.

This commonly manifests as:

  • Slower reactions;
  • Reduced ability to process information;
  • Memory lapses;
  • Absent-mindedness;
  • Decreased awareness;
  • Lack of attention;
  • Under-estimation of risk; and
  • Reduced co-ordination.

It is therefore unsurprising that fatigue is often the root cause of errors, accidents, ill health and injury – not to mention reduced productivity.

Who’s most at risk?

Fatigue is a major problem for many workers. In the transport sector, some 20% of road accidents are thought to be caused by fatigue.

However, fatigue can be an issue in any sector or organisation where there is shift work, long hours, high demands, monotonous work, or where low pay forces workers to take on a second job.

The risk of errors, accidents and injuries has been shown to:

  • Be higher on night shifts;
  • Rise with increased shift lengths over eight hours;
  • Increase over successive shifts, especially night shifts; and
  • Increase when there are not enough breaks.

Who’s responsible?

Employers often mistakenly believe that a worker will be solely responsible if they have an accident when suffering from fatigue. However, most fatigue is caused by the demands placed on workers by employers, and employers have a legal duty to manage any fatigue-related risks arising from work.

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 states that employers must protect anyone who might be affected by their activities. As shift work can affect the health and safety of workers and the public, it is important that employers take proactive steps to prevent harm. This means effectively controlling the risks associated with shift work by:

  • Making sure your workers are not fatigued (see below for tips); and
  • Having systems in place to prevent employees working when fatigued.

Additionally, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 requires employers to assess the risks to employees from work activities and put in place reasonably practicable measures to remove or control those risks. This includes the number of hours worked and how hours are scheduled.

The Working Time Regulations (WTR) 1998 impose limits on workers’ hours of work that employers must abide by when organising working time. The law does not specifically define ‘shift work’, but this usually means:

  • Work activity scheduled outside standard daytime hours, where there may be a handover of duty from one individual or group to another.
  • A pattern of work where one employee replaces another on the same job within 24-hours.

As an employer, the legal duty to manage the risks from fatigue lies with you, regardless of any worker’s willingness to work extra hours or preference for certain shift patterns. Compliance with the WTR alone is insufficient to manage the risks of fatigue.

How can employers manage fatigue?

Like any hazard that poses a risk, fatigue needs to be managed and it is important not to underestimate the risks.

In Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance on managing shift work, HSG256, employers are advised to make sure that:

  • Working hours are not too long.
  • Employees get enough rest between shifts.
  • Employees do not work too many consecutive night shifts – incidence of accidents has been found to be higher on night shifts, especially after successive shifts.
  • Employees avoid critical jobs at the end of shifts.
  • Shifts rotate ‘forwards’ – mornings, afternoons, then nights.
  • Employees take quality rest breaks in their work.
  • Employees can report fatigue problems to management.
  • The work environment does not cause drowsiness.

One way to guard against fatigue is to develop a policy that specifically addresses and limits working hours, overtime and shift-swapping, then implement the policy, monitor and enforce it. This may involve developing a robust system of recording working hours, overtime, shift-swapping and on-call working.

Again, as a first step, employers should carry out a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks associated with shift work as part of their overall health and safety management system. Your risk assessment may include using tools such as the HSE’s ‘fatigue risk index’.

10 practical tips to reduce the risk of fatigue from shift work
Make sure individual work cycles include no more than six consecutive eight-hour shifts or four consecutive 12-hour shifts.
Keep night work to a minimum; schedule workers as few consecutive night shifts as possible.
Make shifts shorter when work is particularly hazardous or exhausting.
Make sure workers who work 12-hour shifts or night shifts do not regularly work overtime.
Make sure workers rarely work more than seven days in a row.
Where possible, keep shift cycles consistent.
Give adequate notice of shift changes.
Make sure workers have sufficient breaks during shifts, particularly those working long shifts and performing high-risk work.
Allow workers adequate rest and recuperation time between the end and start of a shift.
Have a handover policy to ensure effective handover to the next worker.

Need expert advice?

Ellis Whittam is one of the UK’s leading providers of fixed-fee Health & Safety services. Our unique approach combines a personalised, high-quality service with complete cost certainty, with the aim of helping employers to create safe working environments, ensure compliance with all relevant legislation and safeguard against financial and reputational risk. 

If you would benefit from unlimited access to a dedicated Health & Safety Consultant, who will help you to identify realistic solutions to all your health and safety challenges, call 0345 226 8393 today to talk through your needs with one of our friendly team.