Shift workers at risk, duty of care under the spotlight

by Stephanie Zillman15 Oct 2012

It’s the news no employer would want to hear – an employee was killed or responsible for a car accident after finishing their night shift.

Yet new research has found night shift employees are among the most at-risk category of workers, and more needs to be done to ensure they make up for lost sleep.

According to research by the Melbourne based Institute for Breathing and Sleep, immediately following a night shift, workers’ ability to operate a vehicle is significantly impaired. The finding was reached after a series of simulated driving tests found workers' were less able to drive in a straight line and stick to the speed limit. “It's certainly clear that there's a much higher crash risk in people driving home after night shift,” Dr Mark Howard told AAP at the Australasian Sleep Conference in Darwin, where he presented the findings on Thursday.

Yet the study also found that having the chance to take a nap before and during their shift mitigated the risks. Dr Howard said while naps would not reduce the crash risk back to the range of the general population, driving performance would be slightly improved.

He noted that a nap in the afternoon before a night shift, then during the shift in the early hours of the morning when people usually sleep, was of the greatest benefit.

Dr Howard said it’s obviously impossible to eliminate night shifts, and good strategies must be in place to minimise the risks as much as possible.

Complementary research by Justine Westlake, also of the Institute for Breathing and Sleep, found shift workers' driving skills appeared to return to normal on their days off, but shift workers were still likely to be depressed and tired. “You can drive safely, but it's having a chronic effect on fatigue, mood and feelings of sleepiness,” Westlake told AAP.


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