The spotlight is on night shifts

United Kingdom

The spotlight is once again on the risks associated with shift working.  New medical research, reported in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health, has concluded that there is an increased risk of cardiovascular disease among shift workers.  Meanwhile the Lancet published research yesterday finding that “Circadian disruption is reliably associated with various adverse mental health and wellbeing outcomes, including major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder”.

Employers are advised to carefully monitor the processes and procedures in place to manage the risks associated with night shift work.  Night shift working has long been recognised as a high risk area.  Fatigue, night work and / or shift-working arrangements have been cited as major contributory factors in numerous well-documented accidents.  With the potential for certain illnesses to be recognised as occupational and as a result of shift working, there is exposure to risk – both in relation to personal injury claims but also regulatory risk.

The Scandinavian study, ‘Shift work and the risk of cardiovascular disease. A systematic review and meta-analysis including dose-response relationship’ concluded that those who worked shifts had an increased risk of a cardiovascular event by 17%.  The research indicates that a shift schedule is disruptive to the body’s circadian rhythm which can have an effect on metabolism, inflammation and nervous system regulation. In addition, there is more of a widespread presence of poor diet, smoking and inactivity leading to excess weight among those who work shifts. These factors put individuals at a greater risk of developing cardiovascular problems.  The report recommends further research is carried out into the lifestyle factors of shift workers, for example, to determine whether a particular shift pattern has more of an effect on the risk of a cardiovascular event. Factoring in other lifestyle behaviours would enable an improved interpretation of results.

This study follows similar research and years of debate regarding the potential health risks of shift work.  Last year it was reported that the HSE had directed its Workplace Health Expert Committee (WHEC) to re-examine the issue of whether there is a link between night shift work and breast cancer.  A number of years ago the Danish government made compensation payments to women who it was said had developed breast cancer as a result of working night shift.

The Lancet’s study looked at UK residents aged 37–73 years, who were recruited into the UK Biobank general population cohort from 2006 to 2010.  91,105 participants were included with data collected between 2013 and 2015 in the analyses.  It found that “circadian disruption is reliably associated with various adverse mental health and wellbeing outcomes, including major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder. Lower relative amplitude might be linked to increased susceptibility to mood disorders.”

Many industries rely on shift workers – they are vital to the service that many organisations provide. As above, given the scrutiny and attention the risks of night shift working is once again receiving, our advice to employers would be to continue to carefully monitor the processes and procedures in place to manage the associated risks.