Night shift workers—those who usually start work between 10 p.m. and midnight and finish between 6 and 8 a.m.—are essential to ensure customers receive safe and reliable gas, electricity, and other utility services throughout the night and early morning hours.
Unfortunately, research has shown that night shift workers—also called third shift workers—experience a number of adverse health conditions, including restlessness, sleepiness on the job, fatigue, decreased attention, and disruption of the body’s metabolic process. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), continued third shift work can even lead to cancer.
One way for health and safety professionals to mitigate the risks associated with working overnight hours is simply to talk with workers about the effects of working the night shift on the body. This way, workers can make informed health decisions.
In honor of National Third Shift Workers Day on May 11, we’re sharing a few topics worth discussing with your night shift workers.
6 health discussions to have with night shift workers
1. Following a regular sleep schedule
Among the most obvious side effects of working the night shift is the disruption of a normal sleep schedule. Although third shift workers are not able to rest during traditional sleeping hours, they still need seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Sleep should happen within the last eight hours of going to work and be at the same time every day. If people are taking naps before work, they should rest for less than 45 minutes or more than two hours to ensure they complete a full sleep/wake cycle.
Check out: Addressing Worker Fatigue to Prevent Safety Incidents
2. Healthy eating
Eating during the third shift can be tricky because the body is accustomed to sleeping during those hours, and not digesting food. It’s not uncommon for night shift workers to experience digestive issues in the short term as well as serious medical problems such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes in the long term, according to the CDC.
According to Genesis Health System, a high protein diet gives workers energy and will help them stay alert throughout their shift. Fruits and vegetables, lean meat, fish, peanut butter, bread and crackers, and dairy products are all good choices.
3. Regular exercise
There are many benefits to regular exercise for all people. Exercise lowers the risk of chronic disease, improves balance and coordination, and helps a person lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, according to Mayo Clinic.
According to OSHA, exercise is particularly beneficial for night shift workers because it promotes healthy sleep and boosts energy levels to keep a person awake. Ideally, night shift workers should exercise at least every other day after they sleep (i.e., before their shift).
Read: 6 Safety Protocols Workers Commonly Neglect
4. Consistent health checkups
Regular medical exams are essential for third shift workers because they can help identify changes in a person’s health—particularly those that may have happened since beginning night shift work. Severe fatigue during waking hours; sleep, stomach, or intestinal issues; and sudden unexplained weight loss are all side effects of working the night shift that could lead to poor work performance and overall health if not caught and addressed early.
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5. Limiting caffeine
When most of us feel tired, it’s second nature to reach for a cup of coffee, tea, or soda. Caffeinated beverages can perk a person up in the short term, but what night shift workers might not realize is that they can negatively affect sleep quality if consumed close to bedtime.
According to the Sleep Foundation, a moderate amount of caffeine in the first few hours of a night shift is OK, but workers should stop consuming caffeine about four hours prior to when they plan to go to sleep. When they need a boost of energy later in their shift, Genesis Health System advises workers to consume a high-protein snack and take a brisk walk to promote wakefulness.
6. Quitting smoking
According to the CDC, 16 million Americans are living with a disease caused by smoking. Smoking and using other tobacco products is harmful to the entire body. Studies show there is a direct link between tobacco usage and cancer, coronary heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), among others.
As we’ve shown, working the night shift can be hard on the body. Adding tobacco to the mix can exacerbate the situation. Therefore, the CDC urges night shift workers to avoid using tobacco.
To quit smoking, the Mayo Clinic suggests nicotine replacement therapy, chewing gum (or something crunchy), exercising, leaning on family and friends for support, and joining an online support group. Utility companies can also consider offering a smoking cessation program, like the one offered by the American Lung Association.
Also see: How to Combat Risk Normalization
How does working the third shift affect the body? As you’ve seen, night shift workers are more susceptible to short- and long-term adverse health conditions. Although it can be difficult to adjust to working nights, many utility workers are able to do so and thrive.
The best way to help your workers combat the negative effects of working night shift hours is to keep them educated and informed. Make sure they’re aware of the risks they face by working overnight, so they can make proactive choices to stay healthy.
Up next: 7 Ways to be More Proactive About Worker Safety