How Working Long Hours Impacts Safety

April 7, 2022

Working long hours impact the safety of employees. Aaron Paris discusses the types of impact and ways to create a safer work environment.

How Working Long Hours Impacts Safety

The worker shortage is a real issue. In 2021 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 47 million American’s voluntarily quit their jobs. The number is staggering but is consistent with a gradual trend over the last 10 years. Baby boomers were the workforce and the pandemic led to many people changing jobs.

The result – Your team members have a heavier workload, likely leading to long hours. Yet working long hours hurts your safety culture.

Let’s take a look at exactly why working long hours is risky and what you can do to help while you search for additional staff.

Increased Employee Fatigue

Employees will likely be taking on overtime shifts in addition to their normal workday. Their workdays may be longer than usual to accommodate production requirements, staffing needs and to meet deadlines.

Working long hours has been linked to heart disease and stroke. The World Health Organization and The International Labour Organization published a study in environment international that has alarming numbers. Working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of a stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours a week.

The National Institute of Justice conducted a study on fatigue in law enforcement, and the findings can be applied to just about every industry. The study, called Evaluating The Effects Of Fatigue On Police Patrol Officers: Final Report, found that physical and emotional stressors aside, long shifts and stressful work create poor sleep habits and patterns. This, in turn, increases fatigue.

The study found that exposure to multiple stressors over time resulted in officers adapting poorly to the stress. The effects spilled into their leisure time,

”The net effect of these multiple stressors, however, can be more than additive. Chronic exposure only magnifies the effects as maladaptations are developed in response. As the after effects spill over into leisure time, recuperation becomes all but impossible (Gardell 1987:65-66). The result is a vicious cycle where fatigue diminishes the ability to cope with other job stressors in a healthy manner. This, in turn, further disrupts sleep and sleep patterns and increases fatigue (e.g., Hockey 1986; Mitler et al. 1988; Monk 1990). In time, this process accelerates to seriously erode an officer’s ability to function effectively”

When employees must work long hours, be sure to provide them enough breaks throughout the shift. It provides the opportunity to rest and research charge. Employees need some kind of break, even if it’s a quick walk away from their workspace, every 90 minutes.

Working Through Stressful Situations Over Long Periods of Time

Working additional hours increases the amount of time an employee has to be mentally “on,” or focused on their task at hand. Over time, this causes burnout, which directly results in reduced safety and performance.

Jobs that have significant risks from an injury such as nonprofit caregivers with violent patients, steelworkers, long haul truckers and those working around dangerous machines, to name a few, are constantly at a heightened mental awareness during these tasks. This is called hyper-vigilance – constantly assessing your surroundings to maintain safety.

Working under conditions that cause repeated states of hyper-vigilance is very tiring for the body and mind. This is because your body has a fight or flight reaction each time. Your body goes from being on high alert to resisting stress and then into exhaustion, every time. This roller coaster increases heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate, preparing for a potential physical response. When the “threat” has passed, it takes the body 20 to 60 minutes to recover. So, imagine going through this fight or flight experience multiple times per day, then adding on additional hours in a work shift.

This is yet another reason you must make sure employees are provided ample breaks throughout long shifts to keep them operating at peak capacity.

Employer’s Response

Simply increasing your staff numbers is already a difficult task. So, leaders at every level must stay aware of the realities faced by a reduced workforce will help to avoid these safety culture pitfalls.

Prioritizing a safe work culture will help in reducing losses, reducing insurance costs, and increase the morale of your employees.

About The Author

Aaron Paris, CSP, ASP

Aaron Paris, CSP, ASP
Email As the Director of Safety, Property & Casualty, Aaron has more than six years of experience in workplace safety and 12 years in law enforcement. Aaron consults with clients on a wide variety of safety issues such as worker safety, auto, property risk and other safety procedures. He is also authorized to teach OSHA 10- and 30- hour courses.