Shifting the risk: managing health and other risks associated with shift work

Date published



As a society, we have become heavily reliant on shift working in order to keep the wheels of the economy turning 24/7.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, the number of shift workers in the UK has gradually increased over the last 25 years. The statistics indicate that 14% of the working population (approximately 3.6 million people) is now doing shift work “most of the time”.

However, shift working can come at a significant cost to those workers. A vast body of research has shown that irregular work patterns can lead to both short- and long-term health problems, some with serious consequences. Fatigue can also lead to an increased likelihood of accidents occurring whilst at work.

In this article, we take a look at the health problems involved in shift working and what steps employers should take to mitigate against them.

Sleep easy?

Most adults need seven to eight hours sleep a day, although this may decrease with age. Research shows that our bodies naturally want to sleep between the hours of midnight and 6am and that we also experience a further period of weariness between the hours of 2pm and 4pm, particularly after a large meal.

Fatigue can lead to:

  • Slower reactions
  • Reduced ability to concentrate and process information
  • Memory lapses
  • Absent-mindedness
  • Decreased awareness
  • Lack of attention
  • Underestimation of risk
  • Reduced coordination.

Errors and accidents, ill-health and reduced productivity may all follow.

Fatigue has been implicated in 20% of collisions on the roads and is said to cost the UK between £115 and £240 million per year, in terms of other work-related accidents alone.

After young men, shift workers are considered to be the next category of drivers most at risk from collisions on the road.

A fatigued employee in a safety critical work environment — where one need their wits about them at all times — poses an obvious danger to him or herself and to others.

Apart from fatigue and other immediate concerns around shift working, studies are also currently underway looking into the connection between shift working and long-term health-related problems.

These include:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Obesity
  • Gastroenterological disorders
  • Diabetes and metabolic disorders
  • Cancer
  • Reproductive issues
  • Depression and mood disorders.

Shift working therefore has potential to raise risks for employers in the immediate, medium and long term.

Employers’ duties

Employers have an overriding duty to protect the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees, pursuant to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.

Under the Management of the Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers are required to carry out a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks associated with shift work and make a commitment to introduce measures that are “reasonably practicable” to remove or control these risks.

In addition to those duties, the Working Time Regulations 1998 requires employers to ensure that:

  • Working time — including overtime — shall not exceed an average of 48 hours for each seven days (Regulation 4) except where it is agreed in writing that the employee shall be exempt (Regulation 5).
  • A night worker’s normal hours of work in any reference period, which is applicable in his case, shall not exceed an average of eight hours for each 24 hours over a rolling period of 17 weeks (Regulation 6).
  • All night workers should be offered a free health assessment before commencing work on night shifts and that these assessments are offered regularly (Regulation 7).
  • Where the work pattern increases risk — in particular because the work is monotonous or the work-rate is predetermined — the employer shall ensure that the worker is given adequate rest breaks (Regulation 8).
  • Records are kept for two years to show that Regulations 4(1), 6(1), (7) and 7(1), (2) are being complied with (Regulation 9).
  • A rest period of not less than 11 consecutive hours in each 24-hour period for an adult, and 12 hours for a young worker is provided (Regulation 10).
  • An adult worker is entitled to an uninterrupted rest period of not less than 24 hours in a seven-day period (48 hours for a young worker) or 48 hours in a 14-day period (Regulation 11).
  • Where an adult worker’s daily working time is more than six hours, he is entitled to a rest break of not less than 20 minutes (this is altered to a working time of four and a half hours and a requirement of a minimum of 30 minutes rest break for young workers) (Regulation 12).
  • A worker is allowed 28 days’ annual leave per year, including bank holidays (Regulation 13 as amended).

It remains to be seen whether any EU generated legislation will be changed following Brexit, but we think that is unlikely to transpire.

Read our advice and key points that an employer may wish to follow: Shifting the risk (PDF, 447KB)

Read other items in the Personal Injury Brief - September 2017