Twelve hour shifts are killing workers

Any work-week over 50 hours is not reasonable.

New research has found workers suffer many problems associated with working 12-hour shifts and rotating shifts. These problems include a disturbed body-clock, shortened and distorted sleep, and disturbed family and social life.

This resulted in acute effects on fatigue, mood and performance. Without adequate coping strategies, this leads to chronic effects on mental and physical health, including elevated risk of cardiovascular gastrointestinal problems, and heightened safety risks.

The research was conducted by Professor David Peetz and Associate Professor Georgina Murray of the Griffith University Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing, based on a survey carried out between August and December 2011.

The survey looked into the effects of shift rosters and working hours in the mining industry. Respondents included 2566 Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union members and 1915 partners of miners.

A large percentage of respondents referred to sleeping difficulties, use of anti-depressants, and fatigue. Partners found that their spouses were too tired to function properly within the family.

While 65% like the higher rates of pay, 61% would prefer to work fewer than 41 hours a week. The study found 70 different and distinct rosters. The study also noted the explosion in the number of driving accidents on the Peak Downs highway connecting the Bowen Basin to the coast by miners working “drive-in, drive-out”.

There are growing numbers of studies being conducted into shift rosters as the 24-hour operation of mines and other operations become more prevalent. To many Australians, it is a 24-hour working world.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO), a UN body to which Australia is a signatory, has long-standing recommendations regarding shift length and rotation. They continually conduct research into changing work patterns.

Many of the health effects take time, even sometimes years, to manifest and companies are reliant on these time frames to avoid mitigation.

Research by the University of New South Wales in 2011 said “fatigue is a biological drive for recuperative rest” and while the mechanisms are not fully understood, lack of rest impacts deleteriously on performance.

Regular night-shift workers experience up to five times higher levels of digestive disorders. Long hours also exacerbate unhealthy eating habits.

No more than six shifts worked in a row followed by a minimum of two days off is considered reasonable.

The University of Massachusetts medical school found a 61% higher injury hazard rate from 12-hour shifts and the authors found an increased injury risk.

There are also strong links between increased exposure to toxicity levels where 12 hours or less rest occurs between workshifts when working in a chemical laden environment because the body does not have time to eliminate the toxins before new exposure.

Fatigue risk management systems are an essential part of any occupational health and safety regime, but there is increasingly less regulation and enforcement by government safety enforcement agencies and self regulation is increasingly viewed as a failure. Some working cultures, especially in mining and construction, encourage risk taking and unsafe practices.

The ILO, under its “decent working time” recommendations, focuses on the necessity for health and safety, family friendly, gender equality promoting, working conditions to also promote advanced productivity and competitiveness and facilitate worker choice and influence over hours of work.

Clearly, conditions in Australian mines, refineries and construction sites are far removed from this and workers and their families are suffering the results of destructive working rosters imposed by companies.

Labor Party state bodies each have extremely good policies regarding working hours. In Queensland there is a requirement for a 38-hour working week plus reasonable overtime. However, this policy has been blatantly ignored by both the ALP and many unions for the past two decades. Also ignored by the ALP is the ILO recommendation that no more than three 12 hour shifts be worked consecutively.

My experience with 12-hour shifts and rotating shifts comes mainly from time spent working at Ulan coalmine in the late 1980s. I have also observed recent paramedics rosters in Brisbane and construction and refinery projects in Gladstone.

At Ulan Coal, the change from family friendly eight-hour shifts plus two eight-hour shifts every third weekend to a rotating roster to three 12-hour day shifts followed by two days off, followed by four 12-hour night shifts followed by two days off, in a continuous rotation, led to an increase in fatigue levels due to constant change of sleep patterns and an inability to adapt.

This in turn led to a rise in fatigue related injuries, and then a large rise in domestic violence caused by a mixture of fatigue and after-work alcohol consumption.

The mining union at Ulan opposed the introduction of rotating shift rosters, but management convinced the workforce that the extra 10 days off a year were worth the change. The workers rolled their union, and once the change was in place, despite the immediate problems, it was impossible to change back.

Since then the 12-hour shifts have spread like a cancer and the Australian workforce has paid the price in rising industrial accidents and family dislocation and fracturing.

However, the main reason for imposition of these shifts was not immediately apparent, and the result took some time to appear. There appeared to be no financial reason for employers to introduce these shifts so enthusiastically, indeed the rise in accident rates alone appeared to cancel out the supposed, but never clearly defined, financial benefits.

Tired workers are not militant, they do not stand up for their rights at work, they do not organize. Indeed, they never see many of their workmates on the same sites, all they want to do is sleep in between their shifts, and all the young workers want to do is party. Thus in one fell swoop, the mine owners effectively weakened the mining unions, at a very critical time — when these same unions had come out of the deadly ’70s with many safety concessions, all since vanished.

From the inception of these rosters, unions have ended any attempt to control working hours and thus have effectively given up on this aspect of employee protection.

The hours are getting longer as are the number of shifts, while workers appear powerless to stop them. A recent ABC report cited the fly-in, fly-out four week regime at Gina Rinehart’s mines, where workers average 85 hours a week for four weeks and then fly home for a break.

In Gladstone there are continuing 12-hour shifts at the LNG plant construction sites, where up to 49 12-hour shifts can be worked in a row. Coal seam gas drilling crews average 10 12- hour shifts then four days off.

Both unions and the ALP have betrayed their own support base, and failed dismally in their duty of care.

These excessive working hours are harmful to workers, to families and to the community at large. We need to return to the 35-hour week on mining and construction sites, with reasonable overtime only. Any week over 50 hours is not reasonable.

The widespread destruction of workers health and families means we must call into question just what is the net benefit to the Australian community. We need to nationalise these mines to return to safe work practices as well as to more effectively plan the use of these resources in the national interest for the benefit of all Australians, not just the very ungrateful billionaires, who have taken control of workers safety out of the hands of both their unions and the state regulatory bodies.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.