TORONTO― When Jerry Traer was growing up, it wasn’t unusual for him to awake and find his Dad at the kitchen table drinking a beer at 7 a.m.
Traer’s father worked the midnight shift. Like many shiftworkers, he used alcohol to unwind.
“My Dad would kill me if he knew I was telling this story,” Traer laughs.
“But unless you’re a shift worker, you can’t relate. Those are the mechanisms we turn to.”
Traer would know.
A former shiftworker himself, he’s now a training specialist with Health & Safety Ontario, where he counsels workplaces on coping strategies for shiftwork.
With higher rates of alcohol, nicotine, sugar and caffeine consumption, it’s not surprising shiftworkers are more susceptible to digestive issues, heart problems and sleep disorders.
They’re also more likely to suffer from depression and feelings of alienation.
“As a shiftworker, you miss out of key events in your family’s lives―graduations, hockey games,” he says, adding that takes a toll on the entire family.
One Statistics Canada survey found 66 per cent of shiftworkers reported problems with their spouse compared to just 16 per cent of workers putting in regular hours.
Irritability is another effect because workers often don’t get the right kind of sleep during daylight hours.
That can put the employee and entire workplace at risk.
In 2006 alone, shiftwork-related injury claims cost Canada’s workers’ compensation systems more than $50.5 million.
Globally, some of the worst industrial incidents, such as the Chernobyl nuclear accident and Exxon Valdex oil spill, have been attributed to shiftwork.
Traer says managers need to address these risks because shiftwork is not going away anytime soon.
“Globalization is pushing more workplaces to operate across different times zones,” he points out.
Employers can invest in low-cost solutions such as allowing music during overnight shifts, installing bright lights to trick employees’ bodies into thinking it’s daytime and upgrading the ventilation system.
Other investments include child-care options, health club memberships, and extended cafeteria hours so employees can have a proper meal during overnight shift.
Workers can minimize the effects of shiftwork by establishing bedtime routines and using relaxation techniques, including exercise, to help them sleep.
They should also invest in a good mattress, dark blinds, eye masks, a fan for white noise and an answering machine to intercept calls during the day.
Families of shiftworkers can help by arranging to share at least one meal a day together, planning out how to handle chores in advance and being flexible.
Traer spoke at the Partners in Prevention Health and Safety Conference and Trade Show this week.