Workplace safety on night shifts

By Dr Pushpa Chandra

Jun 10
workplace safety

Millions of Americans work night shifts permanently or routinely rotate in and out of working the night shift. Unfortunately, staying up at night affects the body’s natural circadian rhythm, which not only affects the health of workers, but also has the potential to affect workplace safety as well.

According to Medical News Today, disrupting the circadian rhythm, particularly when it’s combine with sleep loss, can create an increase in fatigue that becomes dangerous in a work environment. Understanding circadian rhythm and how night shift work affects a worker’s cognitive performance is essential for keeping workers and the general public much safer.

Understanding the body’s circadian rhythms

Before looking at how disruptions in the circadian rhythm can impact workplace safety, it’s important to have a basic understanding of the body’s circadian rhythm and how it works. Your circadian clock is basically a time that tells glands within the body when to release specific hormones. This clock also controls body temperature, your alertness, and mood each day. The brain and body evolved over time to cool down and relax after dark, springing back into action once morning comes.

Your circadian clock controls body temperature, your alertness, and mood

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The circadian rhythm follows a cycle that is roughly 24 hours long and it primarily responds to light and darkness. Since circadian rhythms affect so many bodily functions, abnormalities or disruption to these rhythms are associated with various health problems, including depression, diabetes, seasonal affective disorder, bipolar disorder, obesity, and more.

Potential workplace safety issues associated with the circadian rhythm disruption

Working against the natural circadian rhythm and sleep cycle of the body results in multiple problems, such as fatigue, sleep disorders, reduced cognitive abilities, decreased reflexes, and poor moods. The changes in the brain and body that are a result of circadian rhythm disruption may result in various safety issues, including:

Working against the natural circadian rhythm and sleep cycle can cause accidents

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  • Reduced reaction times – One of the most common safety issues that is prevalent among people working the night shift is reduced reaction times. Slowed responses have the ability to result in accidents, which can be dangerous for workers and those they are working with as well. Night shift workers often have reduced memory, concentration, decision making, and judgement, which can lead to poorer job performance.
  • Dozing off on the job – Another safety issue that becomes problematic due to the disruption of circadian rhythms that occurs when working nights is the common occurrence of workers dozing off on the job. Dozing during the night shift occurs regularly, and dozing off can result in injury, particularly to individuals working with sophisticated machinery. However, providing nap breaks to nighttime workers has been shown to help increase alertness while reducing fatigue.
  • Accidents are more likely – The sleep deprivation and fatigue that come with disrupted natural rhythms often cause ineffectual job performance and drowsiness. This makes accidents more likely to take place on the night shift. Studies show that work related injuries are significantly more likely to occur while on the night shift when compared to day shifts. Another study showed that the risk of safety incidents is 20% higher during the first and second hours of the night shift, with the risk increasing when people work successive night shifts.

The take away

Multiple studies show that the disruption in circadian rhythms can compromise workplace safety

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Multiple studies show that the disruption in circadian rhythms causes side effects that can compromise workplace safety. Just a few of the problems that occur when these natural rhythms are disrupted by working the night shift include reduced reaction times, dozing off on the job, and an increase in the likelihood of accidents. Unfortunately, trying to alter the natural rhythms of the body can be difficult, and even when night shift workers try to aim for eight hours of sleep during the sleep, the body doesn’t allow it. To reduce workplace safety issues, it’s important for night shift workers to take measures to stay healthy, such as eating a healthy diet, exercising, and using natural products that help give the body and the immune system a boost.


About the Author

Dr. Pushpa Chandra is a Vancouver-based Naturopathic Physician. She worked for over 27 years as a registered nurse and 22 years at BC's Children's Hospital, working in critical care with the province's sickest children. Her interests include research in circadian rhythm disruption, sports medicine and pediatrics. A competitive sports enthusiast, she has completed ultramarathons and marathons in all 7 continents. As a shift worker she has been using the ingredients of AWAKE and ASLEEP to boost her performance, endurance and overall health.