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20 Real World Practices Night Shift Employers Can Adopt

Information courtesy of Circadian Information, Inc.

When you're in business 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, there's only one rule: There are no rules. That's partly because working during the overnight hours is hard and partly because the work atmosphere tends to be more relaxed. The bottom line is that having people on the job at 4 a.m. lends itself to creative approaches that aren't necessary or wouldn't fly in a 9-to-5 operation.

Here, then, are 20 ideas employer may be able to use to improve shift workers performance, reduce safety problems, boost morale, and generally make things run more smoothly. These aren't pie-in-the-sky suggestions--each tip is from an actual 'round-the-clock operation.

  • Tip #1: Permit on-the-job exercise. Several lab studies have shown that exercise during the overnight hours boosts alertness. Aware that it also promotes improved cardiovascular health and leads to better daytime sleep, one gas company is among the growing number of 24-hour companies that permit on-the-job exercise. The plants control room operates may use a stationary bike, a treadmill, and free weights while they work.

  • Tip #2: Extend H.R. coverage. Too many 24-hour companies expect workers on the night shift to come into work during traditional business hours to take care of payroll and benefit issues. At the very least, employers should extend the hours of the human resources department several days a week. A Florida company takes this concept even further, offering personnel services 24-hours-a-day. All newly hired H.R. managers work non-traditional hours. Their shifts are staggered--3 p.m. to 11 p.m., 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. to 7 a.m.--so that there are usually two people on duty.

  • Tip #3: Provide healthy snacks. An irony of shift work is the foods that tend to be available during the overnight hours--doughnuts, cheeseburgers, etc.-- are the foods that are hardest to digest at this time. A Canadian employer helps out workers by providing free fruits and vegetables at 4 a.m. Each night, snack trays including fresh carrots, mushrooms, broccoli, oranges, or strawberries are put out in the cafeteria, and workers pick them up on their breaks.

  • Tip #4: Put a TV in the control room. Deciding what's appropriate for the workplace is an eternal debate topic. If an employer is not overly concerned about appearances, there's little risk in allowing control room operators on the night shift to watch television, as management at one chemical plant discovered. The TV is kept at a low volume and it gets muted or switched off when emergency calls come in.

  • Tip #5: Let there be light. Studies show exposure to bright light during the early part of a night shift provides a boost in alertness. Employers can take advantage of this is by buying a commercially manufactured light box, as management at a Utah power plant did. On nights when they're feeling run down, control room operators find that turning on the box midway through their 12-hour shift makes it easier to get past the "wall of fatigue" that occurs around 5 a.m.

  • Tip #6: Subsidize extended-hour child care. Finding quality child care during the overnight hours can be nearly impossible. One western mining company runs its own 24-hour child care facility for employees. Shift workers can drop off and pick up their kids without any hassle, and the cost is heavily subsidized by the company.

  • Tip #7: Build teams across crews. While it's important to promote teamwork on each crew, employer shouldn't overlook the opportunity to build teams across crews. For example, if there is a four-crew system with one mechanic per crew, have the four mechanics meet once a month. If getting all four together is too difficult logistically, have three out of four meet, with the no-show slot changing each month. One mechanic will be on her/his regular shift, another can come in an hour early, and the third can come in on a day off once a month.

  • Tip #8: Allow music in the workplace. Few tactics are more effective for improving morale than allowing workers to listen to music--particularly in monotonous jobs. Permitting locomotive engineers to listen to music significantly reduced reported episodes of falling asleep on the job, according to a Circadian Technologies study. Engineers used specially-designed headsets that automatically mute during communication between engineers and conductors.

  • Tip #9: Put e-mail to maximum use. With proper precautions about overuse and etiquette, e-mail is the ideal tool for smooth communication at 24-hour operations. If employees are already using computers, employers can provide a daily update for employees when they sign-on upon arrival. Managers at one company routinely dial into the company's e-mail system from home for an update before coming to work.

  • Tip #10: Allow napping on breaks. Several studies have shown that short naps of 15 to 20 minutes provide an alertness boost that lasts several hours. There is a small but growing number of 24-hour companies that encourage employees to take naps during breaks.

  • Tip #11: Consider fixed shifts. If turnover is high and rotating schedule seems to be driving away employees, employers may be better off with a fixed shift system--especially if the company once used fixed shifts or if other plants in town currently do. One glass plant dramatically reduced turnover and safty incidents when it move from a rotating 12-hour schedule to a fixed schedule.

  • Tip #12: Teach the workers well. A study by Mikko Harma of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health found that a single training session on circadian rhythms and the best times to sleep, nap, and expose oneself to light reduced on-the-job sleepiness and improved subjective sleep quality.

  • Tip #13: Tweak the manager's schedule. If communication between crews is a problem, managers may be able to adjust their schedule to enhance inter-shift interaction. At one Pennsylvania plant, everyone works 4-on, 4-off rotating schedule, but the managers' schedule is advanced two days in comparison to the shiftworkers. Over four days, managers spend two days with each crew.

  • Tip #14: Start their engines. The only thing more annoying than finding your car battery dead at 5:30 p.m. is finding it dead at midnight or 7 a.m. To take one hassle out of shift workers' lives, a Minneapolis company offers a free car-starting service. Employees can call a nearby company that the company contracts to jumpstart cars, and help usually arrives in minutes.

  • Tip 15: Pay for shoes. One way to show appreciation to shift workers' efforts is to pay for their footware. Workers at one chemical plant are entitled to two pairs of safety shoes a year. Employees just pick out the shoes they want from a catalog, and the company takes care of ordering and paying for them. Along with being a great perk, this saves workers the expense and hassle of paying for the shoes up-front and getting reimbursed later.

  • Tip 16: Offer meals to go. Cooking isn't always high priority after an evening shift. To help out workers on the evening shift, a furniture manufacturer has a "Take Home Meal" program. Workers may place orders when they arrive at work for healthy, microwaveable meals they pick up when their shift ends.

  • Tip 17: Eliminate the shift premium and boost base pay. If they are rotating shifts, maintaining a shift premium for nighttime hours means all employees end up making about the same amount from the shift premium each year. To simplify payroll, a Kentucky employer eliminated its hourly shift premium and boosted workers' base pay. Workers end up with the same overall take-home pay, and it's less of a headache from a bookeeping perspective.

  • Tip 18: Be flexible about shift changes. Allowing shift workers to arrange their own shift change times can be a real morale booster. At a Canadian paper mill, the formal shift changeover is at 8 a.m., but employees who turn over and pick up work from each other can work out a shift change anytime between 6:30 and 8 a.m.

  • Tip 19: Set tolerant policies on family emergencies. It's extremely stressful on shift workers when their children or parents get sick. One power plant allows employees on fixed evening and night shifts to switch to the day shift for 12 days a year for family or personal reasons, as long as they provide a day or two of notice.

  • Tip 20: Give their feet a break. If shift workers are on their feet while they work, making sure they're not standing on a hard floor is a worthwhile investment. One Indiana factory found that providing "anti-fatigue" rubber mats on its factory floor boosted morale and improved safety because employees could discard the collapsed cardboard boxes they had been standing on. Depending on the job, you might also buy ergonomically-correct stools that enable workers to sit or lean while they work.

Copyright 2000 Circadian Information (Cambridge, Mass.), publishers of information for night workers and managers of 24-hour operations.

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