Up All Night: Promoting Health and Safety on the Late Shift

Oct. 3, 2014
With proactive policies and preventive measures, corporations can improve the health and wellness of their shift work employees ­ --  and their own bottom line.

When most of the world slumbers, a percentage of the populace is awake, at work but not necessarily alert. They are your third shift and overnight shift workforce, and they may be tired.

"The human body is a miraculous machine, but it was never designed to be at its most alert in the middle of the night," says William Davis.

With that statement, the vice president of operations at Stoneham, Mass.-based Circadian neatly outlines the challenge many manufacturers face in running third or overnight shifts -- addressing stresses such non-traditional shift schedules place on workforces required to be productive while the majority of the world sleeps.

Failure to meet those challenges can be costly to both the employee and employer. Research links night shift work to a variety of illnesses, including heart disease and obesity. Moreover, sleep deprivation raises the potential for poor decision-making and accidents.

"As someone becomes more and more sleep-deprived, they become less concerned about safety," says James Dillingham, owner of Shiftwork Solutions in San Francisco.

Circadian, which provides workforce performance and safety solutions, notes that while there are many benefits to running 24/7 operations, the incremental cost to employers could be as high as $10,000 per worker per year due to productivity loss, absenteeism, turnover, medical costs and other factors. That said, Davis says some of those dollars can be recovered.

"Management does have control over how they staff, what schedules they select, and the policies and procedures around how they run them," Davis says.

With proactive policies and preventive measures, corporations can improve the health and wellness of their shift work employees and their bottom line.

It's All About Sleep

You can blame the circadian rhythm for creating some of the shift work challenges. The circadian rhythm is the body's own approximately 24-hour cycle of physiological changes, including sleepiness and alertness, that occurs throughout the day. Adults' strongest sleep drive is typically between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., according to the National Sleep Foundation.

In addition, workers on overnight shifts typically rejoin the normal daily schedule of their families on off days. Without proper attention to sleep when transitioning back to the night shift, they may return to work carrying a sleep deficit.

SAFC in Lenexa, Kan., transitioned to a 24/7 operation with a big assist from the production workers, who selected the new shift schedule following extensive training about options available to them.

So what can manufacturers do to help employees help themselves with regard to getting enough sleep? Provide information, says Michael Coleman, administrator of the manufacturing practice specialty of the American Society of Safety Engineers and a manufacturing company safety manager.

Coleman said his employer encourages new shift work hires to develop a sleep schedule: For example, does the worker go home from the job and immediately go to sleep, or stay up for a few hours and then go to bed, or something else? It's not as important which option is selected as it is that a regular pattern be established.

"We impress upon them that they need to figure out what works best," for both the worker and his family, Coleman says.

Not to be overlooked, Coleman says, is to remember that most of the safety concerns related to third shift are identical to any other shift. Safe work practices are safe work practices.

I don't think anyone ever successfully adjusts to a rotating shift."

— Michael Coleman, American Society of Safety Engineers

"Your overall job training and training on the safety aspect of the job is a key piece of whether you are successful in maintaining a low injury or no injury rate situation versus what hours [employees] work," Coleman says.  "I think the hours worked is relatively immaterial if you do a good job on the front end of training and helping [employees] understand the work steps they need to take to adjust their home life and sleep patterns to their new work schedule."

Shift Schedules Run the Gamut

There are hundreds of options in shift schedules from which to choose. Such options include the number of hours per shift, the on-and-off pattern, fixed or rotating, rotation direction, start times, combination schedules and other factors, says Circadian's Davis.

That said, "There is no perfect schedule; there is no silver bullet," he adds. However, an optimal schedule incorporates management needs, workforce input and physiological factors that impact safety and performance, he said.

Both Davis and Shiftwork Solutions' Dillingham propose involving affected employees in the shift selection process.

On a related note, Coleman is opposed to rotating shifts. "My position is that rotating shifts are a bad thing. They make it so much harder for people to adjust their sleep patterns," Coleman says. "I don't think anyone ever successfully adjusts to a rotating shift."

SAFC Transitions to 24/7

"My position is that rotating shifts are a bad thing. They make it so much harder for people to adjust their sleep patterns." — Michael Coleman, Administrator of Manufacturing Practice Specialty, American Society of Safety Engineers

Combine an increase in demand with a capacity crunch, and something's got to give. In the case of SAFC in Lenexa, Kan., what gave was lead times. They began to stretch.

"It got to a point where we were pushing lead times to an unacceptable level for ourselves and our clients," says Michael James, plant manager at the Lenexa site, which produces dry powder cell culture media for the biopharmaceutical industry.

The eventual remedy was a wholesale change to the workforce production schedule. What started as a five-day-a-week operation with two 10-hour shifts eventually transitioned to a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week schedule. And lead times retreated to where they need to be, James says.

The Lenexa facility converted to a 24/7 operation with aid from Circadian. Once the decision was made in early 2012, James said the SAFC site set a stretch goal to convert the biggest production line to the new schedule by October 2012.

Employees had a large say in their schedule, according to the plant manager.

"Our leadership philosophy is a servant leadership," James says. "I was not about to tell people what to do. What I wanted to do was gather resources so they could make the decision for themselves."

"Our belief was that if we went about this the wrong way, it was going to cause some real morale issues, and I wasn't willing to risk that. I have a lot of respect for the people who come in and do what they do, and I wanted to enable them to be successful," he says.

Circadian helped guide the site through the transition process. Their personnel shared expertise on the lifestyle changes required to make a 24/7 schedule work, the challenges to a body's own body clock, and the risks and proactive measures that could (and should) be taken to meet the challenges.

"We had learning sessions on weekends to learn about this, to make sure the transition was as smooth as possible," James said.  

He explained that once a decision was reached, operators had to stick with the chosen schedule for one year. At the end of the year, everyone would revisit the shift schedule to determine whether it worked. While operators could choose a new schedule after the first year, that new shift schedule would become the permanent schedule.

Initially operators chose a rotating 12-hour shift schedule. Their aim, James said, was to avoid having anyone work the night shift all the time. However, the rotation schedule they selected required one week of five days on and another of five days off. Operators said the five days on were too much and it impacted their work. And in fact, some employees left as a result of the rotating schedule, the plant manager said.

New Schedule Surfaces

Today SAFC no longer has rotating schedules. Operators elected to move to fixed day and night shifts. Two crews have fixed day schedules and two have fixed night schedules, and no schedule includes five consecutive days on or off.  The shifts are 12 hours.

In large measure, the day and night shifts are staffed with operators who want to be on those shifts, James said. Additionally, new hires are brought in with the understanding they may be asked to work the night shift.

In looking to manage the complexity of a 24/7 operation, SAFC implemented another practice to manage the 12-hour shifts and sleepiness.

Power naps are an option if an employee needs one. "It's okay, they just need to let their supervisor know," James says. "It allows them to get back in the game."  

The plant is at more than 650 days incident-free.

About the Author

Jill Jusko

Bio: Jill Jusko is executive editor for IndustryWeek. She has been writing about manufacturing operations leadership for more than 20 years. Her coverage spotlights companies that are in pursuit of world-class results in quality, productivity, cost and other benchmarks by implementing the latest continuous improvement and lean/Six-Sigma strategies. Jill also coordinates IndustryWeek’s Best Plants Awards Program, which annually salutes the leading manufacturing facilities in North America.

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