Managing the Body's Time Clock in the 24-7 Economy; Your Equipment Is State-of-the-Art. Your Technology Is Primed for Peak Performance 24-7. the Question Is: Are Your Workers?

By Cable, Josh | Occupational Hazards, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Managing the Body's Time Clock in the 24-7 Economy; Your Equipment Is State-of-the-Art. Your Technology Is Primed for Peak Performance 24-7. the Question Is: Are Your Workers?


Cable, Josh, Occupational Hazards


Ever since the dawn of time, humans have been hardwired to work during the day and sleep at night.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Yet millions of Americans earn their paychecks by working schedules that are at odds with the body's biological clock.

They're called shiftworkers.

While many of us think of shiftwork in terms of the midnight-to-8 shift, experts have expanded the definition to include just about any schedule that's outside the 9-to-5 routine. That means if you work rotating shifts or have a schedule that involves long, irregular hours, you're a shiftworker.

"No matter how you slice it, shiftwork is covering around-the-clock in some permutation of 8-, 10- or 12-hour shifts, as opposed to the office worker who works 9 to 5," explains Bill Sirois, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Lexington, Mass.-based Circadian Technologies Inc.

If you have employees whose schedules fit the definition of shiftwork, experts believe they're at a higher risk of injuries, illnesses and accidents than your dayworkers.

On top of that, shiftworkers wrestle with unique challenges, such as the stress of trying to meet family and social obligations existing in the 9-to-5 world.

In terms of your company's bottom line, each shiftworker in your facility is costing you nearly $8,600 more per year than each dayworker, Circadian estimated in a recent study.

That figure--which Sirois believes is "an extremely conservative number"--includes the extra costs of lost productivity, absenteeism, turnover, health care and safety and accidents associated with shiftworkers.

Now, multiply $8,600 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics' estimate of 24 million shiftworkers in the United States, and it's a nearly $206 billion financial hit for companies across the country, according to Circadian.

The good news is there are some simple, straightforward strategies you can employ to minimize the safety and health risks--and concomitant costs--that come with shiftwork.

But first, let's look at why shiftwork schedules come with so much baggage.

SOFTWARE THAT'S AS OLD AS MANKIND

For as long as the earth has rotated on its axis once every 24 hours, we have risen and set with the sun.

From this basic fact of life comes our understanding of circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms (circadian is Latin for "about a day") control virtually every human biological function, including our body's clock, which determines when we're alert and when we're tired.

"Basically we're programmed for being active in the day and for sleeping at night," explains Mark Rosekind, Ph.D., founder, president and chief scientist of Cupertino, Calif.-based Alertness Solutions.

Sirois puts it this way: "Think of it as hardwired software that goes back to the beginning of humankind."

So, for millennia we've had this software in our brain telling us to wake up when the sun comes up and to go to bed when the sun sets. Then along comes electricity, the light bulb, the industrial revolution ... and before we know it, people are working night shifts en masse.

However, our biology never changed.

"When some guy went and invented the light bulb, we made it possible to live and work around the clock," Sirois quips. "But we've not yet broken the genetic code."

In today's 24-hour economy, shift-work is more common than ever.

That's because jobs that involve twists such as early start times, unplanned work extensions, daytime sleep periods, time zone changes and on-call or reserve status disrupt the body's circadian rhythms in the same ways that the classic midnight-to-8 shift does. With that in mind, Rosekind estimates there could be as many as 83 million people in the United States who fit the definition of shiftworker.

IT STARTS WITH SLEEP

Many of the safety and health risks that shiftworkers encounter begin with sleep--or lack thereof. …

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