What is it like to work at night? Are the risks of personal injury more prevalent at night? How acute are the dangers on the night shift? What measures can be put in place that will minimise health and safety risks while on night duty? Does boredom become a factor affecting efficiency at night?
During the past three weeks, I have been exploring this environment as a result of identifying some of the hidden hazards which can directly affect the health and safety of the night duty worker. Poor lighting conditions; working with a road repair or road construction crew at night. Medical and security services personnel working the night shift in the hospital emergency room; or on patrol safeguarding private and commercial properties from intruders; and protecting the neighbourhoods of Barbados as a police officer; or responding to a night time fire emergency in unfamiliar terrain; or a first responder working in flood prone conditions at night.
To understand life at night we need to look at few areas and receive answers to our questions from the point of view of the worker. What we must also take into account is that senior management and supervisory personnel also share the same risks and dangers as their employees. The only difference between the two will be the frequency of their participation in the field. However, that does not diminish the risk to personal safety and health.
There are two environments for the night shift worker. There is the indoor environment, which offers some degree of personal comfort for the worker, including air conditioning with an excellent lighting system. Nurses and doctors working in emergency rooms, and on patient wards; X-ray, laboratory technicians and orderlies seldom leave the hospital except for short exercise periods near exists or entrances; and a structured secured environment further ensures their personal security.
In the field
The second environment is in the field. Visibility is more difficult, lighting maybe limited and shadowy. There is no guarantee on the quality of physical conditions that the worker maybe deployed too; or the availability of shelter in rainy conditions. Fire service officers never know the true conditions of a fire call until they have arrived and conducted their own initial assessment of the fire scene.
Law enforcement officers responding cannot be assured that there has been a cessation of hostilities between parties, prior to their arrival and hospital emergency room medical personnel never know the true extent of any medical complaint or injury, until the patient arrives in the Emergency Room.
Clyde Cox is a Senior Instructor/Trainer for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, First Responder and at times acts as a Senior Security Officer with the Barbados Port Inc. His work schedule does not follow a regular routine; it is flexible and his duties and responsibilities are not confined to a desk or within the secure comfort of an air conditioned office. He is a field operative with varied responsibilities, which, can at times place him at risk. It is this risk which we talked about, and the aspects of night shift life.
Cox says that night shift is rigorous, requires greater concentration from the worker, and that the risk to personal injury while on night duty is more likely to occur to the night shift worker than the daytime employee. He says that this risk exists because of darkness or poor lighting conditions, uneven terrain, bright lights from vehicles, constantly having to adjust your vision from well-lit conditions, to at times almost total darkness.
A typical shift schedule for Cox may be as follows; 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Only the 7 a.m. shift allows for a daytime environment, which may be similar to other working groups. However, the night shift will never be the same for any employee regardless of the conditions of work. This is due to what he says is the constant adjustment which one must place on your body in order to function efficiently at night.
“Your body is naturally attuned to a daytime activity, with the accepted rest period at night and your reflexes are more relaxed at night than during the day. Your entire physical and social pattern of life is affected by the night shift.”
Boredom becomes a major factor in maintaining efficiency at night. Management requires that you do not bring personal entertainment devices to work, things like laptops, video games or any other type of personal entertainment is frowned upon; as management requires that employees concentrate on the job at hand rather than be distracted.
We looked at how he manages his personal life and work responsibilities if his shift ends at 7 a.m. and is scheduled to return at 11 p.m. the same night. He says that your body adapts to this type routine, but in his opinion, it will only do so for a limited time. Eventually you will need to stop, or your body will begin to show the effects of the constant stress of this process.
No simple exercise
Coming home at 7 a.m., not getting any significant rest, rushing off to conduct personal business, rushing back home to “catch a little sleep” and then getting up to start work at 11 p.m. is not a simple exercise. Some people may adapt to this type of life, but not all people will be able to maintain the routine.
We looked at nighttime training for workers. The concept of providing realistic training environments under the actual conditions that most night shift personnel function within is not yet being practised in most work places. This is an area that management needs to consider; as it is not a concept that is being embraced by management. Current training practices only provide for instruction during daytime conditions. With the exception of the military and law enforcement, all the other disciplines provide daytime instruction only, regardless of the work environment.
There is no difference between the police officer on night duty and the airport taxi driver waiting for the last flight to land at Grantley Adams International airports. For the policeman, his work environment is fluid, constantly changing and his personal risk is constantly assessed based on his arrival to a scene.
For the taxi driver meeting the 11 p.m. flight at the airport and not having slept during the day, runs the risk due to fatigue of either causing an accident or being involved in an accident. Law enforcement is a rigid, disciplined environment that requires maximum attention to detail, regardless of the conditions.
This is also important to other workers of the night shift, including the taxi driver. Their responsibilities and duties often include the safety and security of self and others and often the tolls of stress and strain of the night shift may go unnoticed.
Next week we conclude this series with two other disciplines of the night shift. In the meantime, please have some regard for your neighbour, you may not know, but he may have just gotten home from the night shift and you are now about to cut your lawn.