These interventions may help night shift workers

Promote good sleep and dietary habits

With evidence mounting of links between serious medical conditions and night shift work, you should evaluate your shift work policies and practices to make sure they adhere to recommended best practices, such as minimizing schedule disruptions, says Robert Emery, DrPH, assistant vice president for safety, health, environment, and risk management at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

"There are several well-known issues inherent to shift work," he says. "You might as well take this opportunity to make sure you're addressing those, while other investigations in this issue play out."

Actively communicate with workers through newsletters and other correspondence to make them aware of the study, its limitations, and the need for more controlled studies; then provide reminders about suggested healthy habits, advises Emery.

The linking of night shift work to cancer is now one more problem occupational health professionals will have to address, without being able to control the lifestyle or dietary decisions of employees, says Kathy Ohlmann, RN, MSN, COHN-S, a sleep educator at Work Place Solutions, a Louisville, KY-based company specializing in health and safety concerns in the workplace. Your job is to provide employees with a safe working environment based on the latest research and information available, says Ohlmann. The rest is the employee's job, she says.

It's not known whether the night shift employees diagnosed with cancer followed healthy lifestyle choices, such as getting more than a few hours of sleep during their off time or eating healthy foods, says Ohlmann. "The role of the occupational health professional is to balance the good of the company with the safety and well-being of the employee," she says. "Sometimes that's a real difficult balancing act." Ohlmann recommends these interventions for occupational health professionals:

  • Perform an ongoing evaluation of the benefits of night shift work to the company, and assess the impact on employee health.
  • Monitor the health status of employees, and promote wellness programs with preventive screenings for all employees, including those on the night shift.
  • Promote healthy food choices around the clock in vending machines, cafeterias, and break rooms.
  • Educate employees on the importance of sleep, the effect of sleep deprivation on the body, and alternate ways to protect the needs of the body when sleep is altered. "This should include the families of those affected, as well, since it's a lifestyle to work other than dayshift," Ohlmann says.
  • Assess the impact of work shift scheduling on safety, health, and productivity.

The effect on an individual employee from working nightshift varies widely depending on many variables, such as length of shifts, number of shifts worked before a rest day, and number of rest days and weekend shifts, says Ohlmann. Other considerations are the amount of rest taken between shifts, the amount of rests during shifts, and the regularity and predictability of the schedule, she says. "All of these factors can affect the amount of stress and fatigue the individual feels because of the work schedule," says Ohlmann. "If people experience added stress and fatigue, they may not do the job safely and efficiently, or they may develop health issues."