How to Handle Long Night Shifts

Wednesday, August 18, 1999
During the overnight hours, workers are at a higher risk for lapses in concentration that can lead to bad decisions and sloppy work. Studies have found that accidents on the night shift tend to be more serious than those occurring during the daytime. Extra precautions are needed on the night shift, especially during the hours just before dawn. Here are some "fatigue countermeasures" to maintain alertness: Make sleep a priority: Getting the sleep the body requires - generally a minimum of seven hours a day - is the number one step to avoid alertness lapses.. Take an exercise break: Many shiftworkers find it helpful to take an exercise break when they start to feel tired. If the worker can't leave his work station, changing posture, stretching and merely standing up instead of sitting can help him stay awake. Drink liquids: Being dehydrated can increase the sense of fatigue felt. Sipping on an ice-cold glass of water or fruit juice will help reduce feelings of drowsiness. Use caffeine wisely: Caffeine provides a significant boost in alertness, but workers need to guard against abusing it. In general, consume no more than two or three cups per shift and set a cutoff point within four or five hours of bedtime. One well-timed cup - say, between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. - will boost alertness through the most difficult hours. People who work at night are susceptible to two different types of lapses in alertness - microsleeps and automatic behavior. Understanding what they are can help to recognize how to take steps to avoid them. Microsleeps are brief episodes of sleep that strike when the person is awake but very drowsy. They typically last just a few seconds but can go on for 10 or 15 seconds. The highest risk is between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. - especially if the worker is sleep-deprived and performing a monotonous task or working alone in a quiet or dark environment. Automatic behavior, on the other hand, refers to a period of several minutes or more during which a person is awake and able to continue performing routine duties but loses the ability to make quick decisions. A worker on an assembly line may continue doing his specific task but ignore the fact that the product is missing several parts. Another example is a truck driver who keeps his rig on the road but misses his intended exit. With experience, workers can train themselves to recognize an impending episode. The warning signs include severe sleepiness, problems concentrating, difficulty keeping one's eyes open, frequent yawning, and an inability to remember the last few minutes. When these things happen, short-term coping tactics can be used, such as exercise, caffeine, snacks and conversation with co-workers to ward off a major alertness lapse. If microsleeps or automatic behavior is being experienced regularly, it should be taken as a clear warning sign the worker is not getting enough sleep. Reprinted with permission from the Working Nights newsletter, published by Circadian Information (Cambridge, Mass.) Readers can request a free sample issue by contacting 800-878-0078; ci@circadian.com, or visiting the http://www.circadian.com website.
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