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Whoever named it the "graveyard shift" wasn't kidding.

The global economy and Internet are forcing more businesses to become 24-hour per day and 7-day per week ("24/7") operations. Unfortunately, as hours increase, so too do problems with safety, performance, and employees' health.

As noted in an article called Risk Never Sleeps in Contingencies magazine (published by the American Academy of Actuaries), "If left unmanaged, the costs and risks of 24/7 operations can cost a company tens of millions of dollars in unnecessary labor unrest, accidents, performance errors, health afflictions, and legal liabilities." The article says "the average 'round-the-clock' operation is riddled with unmanaged risks and costly liabilities ... linked directly to 24/7 workforce problems."

One of the biggest risks is fatigue. For example, the National Transportation Safety Board recently said fatigue was the primary cause of serious accidents in the trucking industry. And, Contingencies points out that "the ExxonValdez oil spill, the Bhopal chemical release, the Chernobyl meltdown, and the space shuttle Challenger explosion ... or the decisions that led to them, occurred between 12:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. [T]here are five times more industrial accidents and up to 20 times more transportation accidents during the overnight hours, when employees exhibit poorer judgment, slower reflexes, and a lack of concentration and focus."

The article also cites a 1997 study that found "a person who has been awake for 22 straight hours - not uncommon for a shiftworker working her first night shift after a weekend off - is impaired to the same level as a legally intoxicated person with a 0.08 blood alcohol content."

"People with insufficient sleep suffer impairments in performance, attention and reaction time, which leads to errors, including automobile crashes," said Dr. Claude Lenfant of the National Institutes of Health.

Besides being a problem for employers, fatigue is also a health issue for workers. The Contingencies' article says employees on the graveyard shift have "two to three times more cardiovascular and gastrointestinal disorders, and [for female employees] a 50 percent higher risk of breast cancer." Another recent study by the National Cancer Institute concluded that night-shift workers face a 35 percent increased risk of colorectal cancer. Similarly, a study published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine (OEM) found excessive overtime work and insufficient sleep were related to an increased risk of acute myocardial infarction.

"I suspect that we are paying a hefty price in decreased productivity and the cost of ill health in the United States because many people don't get enough sleep," said Dr. James Blessman, medical director for the City of Detroit.

But, it's not only the long hours - blame mean bosses, too. Another OEM study from July 2002 found that unfair or unreasonable bosses are "stressors" that can make you sick. After having workers rate their supervisors on "interpersonal style," researchers took blood pressure readings every 30 minutes over three working days. Not surprisingly, there was a significant increase (15 mg Hg systolic, 7 mm Hg difference diastolic) in workers' blood pressure when they were supervised by someone they considered "unfair."

The OEM study points out: "An increase of 10 mm Hg in systolic and 5 mm Hg in diastolic blood pressure is associated with a 16 percent increased risk of coronary heart disease and a 38 percent increased risk of stroke."

Moreover, the workers "registered a slight decrease in blood pressure when under the supervision of someone they considered fair." By the way, "fairness" was defined as "the giving of timely feedback, particularly praising a job well done, showing trust and respect, being consistent, impartial, and adaptable."
 
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