Scary Truths about the Graveyard Shift


Ever since the invention of the light bulb, employers have embraced the notion that by running all-night operations, they could turn out twice as much quality product with little or no additional capital expenditure. After all, a night-shift worker's 2 a.m. is equivalent to a day-shift worker's 2 p.m., right?

Turns out that the all-night shift might not be such a bargain after all. A new study from Lexington (Mass.) consultancy Circadian Technologies, which advises the nation's largest companies on how to manage their extended-hours operations, estimates that maintaining the practice may be costing companies a steep $206 billion annually -- $8,600 per worker.

ADDING IT UP. The reason: No matter how many espressos night workers might belt back, their bodies are telling them it's time to sleep just when their employers need them to be the most productive. Graveyard-shift workers make five times as many serious mistakes and are 20% more likely to suffer severe accidents, Circadian found. Those on the overnight shift also have a significantly higher incidence of costly diseases and disorders, costing employers billions.

This is no surprise to occupational health pros, who have done their own studies on work and fatigue. They show that the fatigue that comes from staying up too late, or for too long, routinely leads workers to go easy on the exercise. Night workers also seem to eat more fatty foods during their 3 a.m. lunches. Obesity and diabetes rates are higher among overnight-shift workers, according to Circadian. All-night workers tend to have heart disorders at rates 40% higher than those of workers on dayside shifts.

Social costs are also high. Night shifters don't go home, have dinner, watch TV, and then go to bed the way nine-to-fivers do. When the sun comes up, they still have to function in a world that's largely unaware they're running on fumes after working all night.

LIKE BEING DRUNK. This disruption in life's routines might be why divorce rates are as high as 60% among all-night workers, and why they have 150% more stress-related gastrointestinal disorders. Health-care coverage adds a further $28.8 billion to the corporate bill, according to Circadian. Then there's the high turnover rate for night-shift employees, as high as 300% annually in some industries. This tacks on an additional $39.1 billion in costs.

Most companies typically don't track their return on investment by shift, much less their benefits costs. Still, some are beginning to look more closely at their night shifts. Circadian client Unilever Group's Jefferson City (Mo.) plant added four hours per overnight shift in 2001 so that employees could have longer blocks of rest time. The result: Productivity increased by 15% and accidents dropped by 40%, the consultancy says.

Similarly, when Cellu Tissue Holdings beefed up safety training and doubled the number of allowable absences for tired employees at its Enfield (Conn.) plant, it cut accidents in half, at an annual savings of $500,000, according to the company. Canada's Manitoba Hydro now offers transportation home to drowsy workers -- a smart move considering that being up for 18 hours straight stresses the body as much as having a blood alcohol level of 0.08, according to sleep-disorders scientists.

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL. Even hospitals are starting to look more critically at the night shift. On July 1, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, the national body that oversees medical residents, mandated paring back residents' brutal 100-hour workweeks to 80 hours, and reducing their 30-plus hour patient-care shifts to a maximum of 24.

Many companies are still reluctant to acknowledge employee fatigue, fearing legal liability. But increasingly, they ignore the issue at their own peril. Last year, a Texas civil court jury found Nabors Drilling liable for $5.95 million in damages when one of its employees fell asleep at the wheel on his drive home from the late shift. More recently, a New Jersey jury found Conrail liable for $52.4 million in damages to the family of an employee killed in an accident caused by another employee who said he was operating on only three to four hours of sleep.

If productivity costs alone don't institute late-night changes, the specter of a legal judgment just might. By Kate Hazelwood in New York


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