Shift Work and Safety Training

I’ll have to admit, it has been more than a few years since I worked shift work, but I can still clearly remember the good and the bad that came with it. When I was a young single guy, I enjoyed the evening shift when I could get off at 10 p.m., close the town up and sleep late the next morning.

The night shift came in handy, especially after I got married. My first child was colicky, and my wife would be up all night and was ready when I came in at 6 a.m. for some relief. It would then be my turn for the next few hours of sleepless torture. Of course, the dayshift put me back on my toes. I was now under the watch of the brass, which often caused me to ponder the desire of many of my fellow officers who wanted permanent day shifts.

Over the years, I have studied a variety of shifts and schedules, lengths of rotations and even which direction of rotation provides the least stress. While I understood the complications of shift work and how it could affect one’s health, family life and general wellbeing, I never really gave it much thought. Sleep deprivation can impact not only employee safety, but also the safety of those around them. Law enforcement duties have been built around shift work, thereby creating a certain amount of “this just goes with the territory” attitude.

Well, think about this: The Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident occurred on a night shift, when the people were tired and not focused on their responsibilities. In fact, all four of the major nuclear plant accidents in the past 10 years occurred between 1 and 4 a.m. The National Transportation Safety Board reports fatigue figured in 69 air accidents between 1983 and 1986 and approximately 200,000 traffic accidents each year are attributed to sleep deprivation.

Law enforcement and corrections personnel work a variety of shifts while utilizing automobiles, aircraft and various weapons, usually in an environment of a whole lot of unknowns. Today, there is much more information available about the impact of shift work on the body and mind than 20 years ago. Therefore, it is important that emphasis be given to appropriate awareness, training and education. This will afford employees the knowledge to avoid becoming a victim of their own error or misjudgment brought on by sleep deprivation.

To provide a basic understanding of how the body is affected by shift work, it should be understood that humans are naturally diurnal, which means that we are, by nature, more active and alert during the day and have lower levels of energy at night. This is referred to as circadian rhythm. This is the internal body rhythm which cycles approximately every 24 hours, thus the name circa (about) dia (a day). To put circadian rhythm into perspective, consider that just a one-hour adjustment to and from daylight savings time results in about an 8 percent increase in traffic accidents, according to University of British Columbia research.

Another aspect of sleep deprivation may be brought on by the interruption of the rhythm of sleep, itself. This has been measured by non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. These two movements make up the two categories of sleep, and combined take about a half-hour to cycle, and then continue to do so at the same frequency throughout the night. Some research indicates that when this cycle is interrupted, it takes between seven and 14 days to return to a somewhat normal state. This is certainly an important consideration when determining how often shifts will cycle.

There are four stages of sleep in non-rapid eye movement. Stage one is the transitional stage between waking and light sleep and usually lasts for about 10 minutes, as the body prepares itself for sleep. Stage two is known as clinical sleep, where the blood pressure drops and heart rate decreases and makes up about 50 percent of sleep. Stages three and four make up what is considered deep sleep. It is during this time that the body functions slow and the mind and body repair themselves.

I have provided this nutshell version of sleep mechanics in order to emphasize that a shift employee is affected by some very real biological factors. Consider that the night shift employee will usually get one to two hours less sleep than someone working day shifts. Now add to this the running lawn mowers, leaf blowers, telephones ringing, etc., that will further aggravate this interrupted, or fragmented sleep during the day. Also take into account that law enforcement personnel work a lot of overtime, have second jobs, coach baseball and pursue their hobbies with a passion.

While we are dealing primarily with workplace safety, there are other hazards of shift work to keep in mind, disruption in family and social life, gastrointestinal and digestive problems, fatigue (which can also make a person more vulnerable to illness), poor job performance and sagging motivation.

Now that we have identified some of the problems associated with shift work and why they occur, our objective is to better prepare ourselves to prevent accidents and maintain safety and awareness while on the job and at home.

The following are suggestions you may want to consider for yourself, your employees and for a safety training program. When a new employee is hired and has never been exposed to shift work, it is very important that shift work and sleep deprivation safety training are provided. An annual review should also be provided to all employees.

Things to Know and Practice:


  • Usually days off fall prior to a shift change and this should be the time to begin your sleep adjustment, not the first day of the work assignment.
  • Maintain an exercise regimen; however, avoid exercise right before bedtime.
  • Make every effort to achieve eight hours of sleep per day.
  • Turn off radios, scanners, pagers, telephones, etc. (unless, of course, you are on call!).
  • Darken the room you sleep in with shutters, blinds or drapes. (I always liked foiling the windows.)
  • Try to go to bed as soon as you get home when on the night shift.
  • Utilize noise masking with white noise like a fan, sleep enhancing sound maker or consider earplugs.
  • It may be necessary to lower the thermostat, as temperatures will fluctuate from nighttime to daytime.
  • Be sure to instruct friends and family members as to your shift status so they will know when you will be sleeping.
  • Maintain your same sleep schedule on days off.
  • Do not try and compensate for lost sleep by oversleeping as this further disrupts the circadian rhythm


  • Avoid salt, sugar, spicy foods and beverages containing caffeine or alcohol before bedtime. Eat light meals when nearing bedtime.
  • Eat light meals when nearing bedtime.
  • Stay with nutritious balanced meals, when possible; this will provide extended benefits all around.
  • Shift work may only allow access to junk food after hours, so prepare and bring food from home in order to avoid the vending machines and fast foods
  • Make every effort to maintain regular eating patterns.
  • Avoid sleeping pills or stimulants
  • Maintain your same sleep schedule on days off

Awareness and Tactics

  • Maintain awareness of your mental and physical status throughout the duration of your shift.
  • Recognize sleepiness and fatigue before it causes an accident.
  • Use caution if your reactions become slow or confused.
  • Recognize any close calls or near misses you may experience.
  • Take mini-walks or longer walks, when allowed. Police work started with foot patrols and they are still vital and always welcomed by the community.
  • Stretch and perform breathing exercises from time to time.
  • Consume soft drinks, tea, or coffee in moderation, if it’s not nearing the end of the shift.

Keep in mind if you are having difficulty sleeping that there are a variety of different sleeping disorders. It is very important that you confer with your physician if the problem persists.

There are a variety of different work schedules for the 24-hour operation available today. Every agency or company has different staffing needs, for different reasons, at different times of the day.

Factors such as the numbers of hours worked per month, as regulated by the Garcia ruling, union contracts, overtime, days off, community needs and hours of peak activity must all be considered when determining what schedule fits best. The age of the employee should also be considered, as many older employees have a more difficult time with adjustments than those who are younger. It is extremely important to have employee input and understanding when developing a new work schedule, or changing a current schedule. It is often easy for managers who are not assigned to perform shift work to come up with a good schedule on paper that would meet management needs, but does not take into consideration the overall impact on the employees. It is preferable to find a schedule that will meet the needs of both the employer and employee. This shouldn’t be difficult, given the wide array of schedules available.

No matter what schedule is eventually selected, the direction of the rotation has proven to usually have least impact on the circadian rhythm when it moves in a clockwise direction. For example 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. would rotate to 2 p.m. to 10 a.m., which would rotate to 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and so on.

Twelve-hour shifts have become increasingly popular in law enforcement, even though the change from day to night is quite dramatic. While some agencies allow permanent shift assignments, others prefer to rotate. While very short duration, such as one day on nights, one day on mornings and one day on evenings, has been favored in some industry work, the longer duration schedules seem to be preferred in law enforcement. Anything more than a few days or less than four to eight weeks would most likely present a greater problem with sleeping adjustments.

No matter where you end up, remember that personal health and safety are critical for good employees and to a successful operation. Education and awareness of shift work should become an ongoing part of every agency’s training program and not considered something that “just goes with the territory.”

By Roger Griswold, Loss Prevention Consultant