We are somewhat less focused on ensuring attentiveness. To varying degrees we monitor and control the factors that contribute to worker attentiveness ' work load, motivation, and distractions. We have performance reviews and compensation plans. We provide productivity-enhancing tools and conduct workflow studies to make simplify jobs and allow workers to focus.
But we have pretty much given up when it comes to alertness. We take alertness as a variable factor over which we have no control. This may have been true at one time but it is not true today. There is now a sizable body of research that enables people to better understand, and so control, the elements of alertness (see sidebar on the nine switches of alertness).
The Weak Link
Any system is only as strong as its weakest link. Everyone knows this to be true. And yet, we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars training a doctor on how to do a job and spend nothing on how to live the life that accompanies the job.
Night workers often receive extensive job training. As a result, during the day (when their training classes are usually held) they are thoroughly prepared and capable of carrying out the tasks required of them. But their ultimate performance on the job is highly susceptible to being impaired by fatigue.
Training the Human Machine
If you think of humans as computers, the typical training we provide is like software. It helps people process data and provide an appropriate output. Unlike a computer however, humans' ability to process data quickly and accurately is affected by their alertness. The missing element is training people to enable them to maintain alertness at required levels.
This is not a radical new concept. In companies and organizations across North America, health awareness and wellness programs are already in place. These programs are an effort to improve work performance and worker quality of life by encouraging exercise, weight loss, better sleep habits, quitting smoking, etc.
These wellness programs fall short, however, for the 20% of the workforce that works non-traditional hours. What makes sense for daytime workers may not make sense, or may be impractical for nighttime workers. Often company wellness classes are held at noon or at shortly after five o'clock ' times that may make it difficult or impossible for shiftworkers to even attend.
The solution is training that is specifically created for people who work at night. We call this alerntess lifestyle training.
Alertness Lifestyle Training
Workers' alertness, hence their ability to perform effectively, is dependent on many factors. Some of those factors are beyond their control but others are directly affected by the individual's actions. Alertness lifestyle training means giving workers the knowledge they need to make appropriate adjustments to their lives.
As the name suggests, successful lifestyle training affects a workers entire life, not merely his or her time at work. Adjustments on the part of your employees will therefore be contingent on acceptance by spouses and family members who will also be affected. For this reason, you may want to include spouses in your lifestyle training.
Alertness lifestyle training should start with a non-technical discussion of circadian rhythms and how they effect human alertness. People who work at night must understand that there is a fundamental difference between daytime and nighttime work. Humans have evolved over millions of years to be awake during the day and asleep at night. Unless workers acknowledge this basic fact, the rest of the training process is meaningless.
After this first step, lifestyle training should address the following areas:
Seven or eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is important to everyone's health and well-being. For the night worker, it is even more vital ' and more difficult to get. Good sleep doesn't just happen. But individuals can set the stage for it by managing their sleep environment, avoiding excessive caffeine and using naps.
Night workers need to know about general nutrition but that alone is not enough.
Typical vending machine food and careless eating habits can cause indigestion discomfort, drowsiness, and weight gain. Attention to freshness, food combinations, timing of meals and ingredients are all part of eating for health and safety when you're eating at night.
Family and Social Life
Night workers have to think about many things differently than 9-to-5 workers. Family and social life are no exception. Those who emphasize communication and plan effectively have shown that shiftwork and family can mix and that single night workers can have a social life.
Health Problems and Solutions
As a group, night workers have more health problems than 9-to-5 workers. However, with good eating and sleeping strategies, moderate daily exercise, and stress reduction, there's no reason they can't remain in excellent health. Training about common health concerns (what they are, how to identify them, and what to do about them) is essential.
Job Performance and Safety
Night workers need to emphasize safety because accidents are more likely to occur on the night shift than on other shifts. With knowledge of the factors that affect alertness, shiftworkers can avoid safety lapses, improve work performance and prevent falling asleep at the wheel.
Alertness lifestyle training will improve job performance as well as workers' health, safety and quality of life. That in turn improves morale and tends to lower absenteeism and turnover rates, which are particularly problematic in round-the-clock operations.
The benefits of lifestyle training can far outweigh the costs. But, like so many corporate initiatives, success is dependent on other factors as well. The benefits are likely to be short-lived if lifestyle training is seen as a one-time project, rather than an on-going process. Alertness lifestyle training is most effective when it is
part of an overall company effort to improve alertness and safety in the workplace. Redesigning the work environment, creating and implementing a new shift schedule and revising company policies and practices may all be part of an overall alertness and safety effort..
While nothing you can do guarantees there will never be a fatigue-related accident or error, establishing a systematic alertness assurance plan will lower their likelihood. The goal of an alertness program should be to establish a corporate culture that recognizes that working long hours can lead to sleep deprivation and fatigue, which sets the stage for accidents.
In addition to providing the employee training we've discussed, there are a few critical areas that your alertness program should address. These include:
Scheduling and overtime
It's important to develop a reasonable and "biocompatible" schedule and stick to it. Biocompatible schedules are those that work with the natural rhythms that control many human physiological functions, such as alertness, body temperature, and digestion. Of course there will be instances that will require overtime, but everyone at your company should know that it simply is not acceptable to habitually work 20 hours in a row or 70 hours a week. If this is the case, you may need to do a serious evaluation of staffing levels. Even if your company doesn't depend on overtime, you need to keep track of individual "overtime hogs" who are potential dangers on the road.
Employees should not feel obligated to drive home if they are tired. Companies can designate a room for exhausted workers to take a nap in before driving home or post a notice saying the company will reimburse employees the cost of a taxi for employees who fear they may fall asleep at the wheel.
Employee/manager task forces
Worker involvement and support of the alertness efforts are critical. Without worker involvement, alertness programs may be perceived as simply the latest in management fad, which have too frequently benefited employers at the expense of workers. By setting up a fatigue task force run by employees, you demonstrate concern about the issue and also give workers a sense of ownership in your overall fatigue management plan.
There are the nine factors that control human alertness:
1. Interest, opportunity or sense of danger
Nothing pulls us faster from a drowsy state than the imminent threat of danger, or just surviving a near miss. A stimulating job also boosts alertness.
2. Muscular activity
Muscular activity such as walking or stretching triggers the sympathetic nervous system and helps keep you alert.
3. Time of day on circadian clock
Due to circadian rhythms, we generally experience peak levels of alertness in the morning and early evening. Times of low alertness include the overnight hours (midnight to dawn) and the early afternoon (the "post-lunch dip").
4. Sleep bank balance
How long you've been awake and how much sleep you've had in recent days affect your alertness level. When you're sleep deprived for several days, you build up a "sleep debt" that leads to reduced alertness. A long spell of adequate sleep acts as a "deposit" that offsets your sleep debt.
5. Ingested nutrients and chemicals
Certain foods and substances ' caffeine, nicotine and amphetamines, for example ' temporarily increase alertness. Others ' such as turkey, warm milk, bananas and sleeping pills ' induce sleep.
6. Environmental light
Bright light tends to increase alertness while dim light leads to drowsiness.
Cool, dry air, especially on your face, helps keep you alert, while heat and humidity make you drowsy.
The sound of rolling waves on the beach or the hum of white noise from machines can lull you to sleep. Irregular or variable sounds, such as a radio, conversation or a honking horn, stimulate alertness.
Studies have found that the smell of peppermint makes people more alert. Lavender, meanwhile, has a sedative effect.
Ed Coburn is publisher of Working Nights, an employee health & safety newsletter for people working non-traditional hours and the www.WorkingNights.com website. He is also managing director of Circadian Information which publishes information for managers and workers in round-the-clock operations. He can be reached at 800-878-0078, e-mail email@example.com.
This article Printed in Volume 13, Issue 1