University of Stirling/Hazards news release, Saturday 30 May 2009
While you were sleeping...
Shiftworkers in the UK are facing serious health risks but are getting second class safety because the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) clocks off outside normal office hours.
University of Stirling Professor Andrew Watterson, in his report to be published on 1 June 2009, says the estimated 3.5 million shiftworkers in the UK are getting second class treatment because no staff in HSE, the official government workplace health and safety regulator, are rostered to work outside of normal hours. This means after dark there is no preventive health promotion work and there are no routine graveyard shift health and safety inspections by its 1,300 strong contingent of workplace inspectors. HSE is responsible for policing criminal breaches of health and safety law in sectors including chemicals, nuclear, offshore, construction, agriculture and general manufacturing.
According to Professor Watterson, who heads up the University’s Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group: “Shiftworkers face all the same risks as workers on normal hours, plus a slew of risks all of their own. Atypical working hours have been linked to conditions including breast cancer, prostate cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, heightened injury and disaster risk, fatigue, heart disease risk factors and pregnancy problems. Evidence is emerging that these health effects combined make shiftworkers, particularly women shiftworkers, far more likely to take early ill-health retirement.”
He says that while some workers will always have to work anti-social hours, “that doesn’t mean they should be an after-hours army of zombies overlooked by the official safety watchdog. It certainly doesn’t mean employers should get away with the more onerous work patterns – longer hours, inadequate breaks between shifts, unpredictable shift patterns - that can lead to serious health problems longer-term.” He is concerned that official guidance from HSE plays down many of the chronic health risks and ignores others, like cancer and heart disease, entirely, so that neither workers nor their doctors are likely to make the link between working hours and patterns of poor health.
“We live in a 24-7-365 working world, but HSE is near dormant on the working hours issue,” warns Professor Watterson. “It undertakes no routine inspections and has taken no prosecutions in the last five years related to health risks arising from gruelling and body wrecking work patterns – in fact it barely takes any action on work-related ill-health at all. While HSE remains unmoved, there is evidence the health effects of shiftworking are an increasing concern for the workforce.”
‘While you were sleeping’, published online on 1 June in the workers’ health and safety journal Hazards, calls for more HSE resources to be targeted at workers on atypical hours, rigorous enforcement of working time law, an end to the UK opt-out from the working time directive’s 48-hour working week ceiling, and for the UK government to follow the Danish government’s lead and compensate workers with breast cancer related to long-term night work.
Professor Watterson also urges trades unions to step up their campaigns on occupational health issues, including shiftwork, and says at workplace level union safety reps should demand effective risk assessments on shift patterns to ensure the least unhealthy patterns are adopted. Unions should ensure wherever possible their safety rep cover includes workers on atypical shifts, including night shifts, he says.
Notes to editors
3. Inspection and enforcement by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has been found to be the most effective way the official safety watchdog can ensure compliance with workplace health and safety regulations. www.hazards.org/enforcement
4. There have been just two HSE working time-related prosecutions since 2001 but these were not on health issues. Since 2001/02, HSE has issued 38 improvement notices relating to the Working Time Regulations, although since 2003 no year has seen more than two notices. Between 2004/05 and 2007/08, HSE took just 16 prosecutions on any work-related health issues, compared to over 4,700 prosecutions for safety offences.
5. The latest TUC biennial survey of safety reps showed long hours were a growing workplace health concern, with 24 per cent identifying it as a top concern in 2008, compared to 21 per cent in 2006 and 22 per cent in 2004 (TUC survey, October 2008).
6. Responding to an alert from IARC, the UN’s cancer agency, the Danish authorities have introduced an enhanced inspections and prevention programme and have recognised long-term night work as a cause of occupational breast cancer and have compensated affected workers. An estimated 400,000 women in Great Britain are involved in night work. HSE says it has no plans to revise its current practice.
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