The BBC has reported that working at night can have an adverse long term effect on the health of employees. According to scientists at the Sleep Research Centre in Surrey, working night shifts affects the body’s natural rhythm or body clock and can alter hormone levels, mood and brain function. For those without medical degrees, one of the scientists gave a “helpful” analogy. He told the BBC that our bodies are like a house where, “there’s a clock in every room in the house and in all of those rooms those clocks are now disrupted, which of course leads to chaos in the household”. Different clocks, disruption, chaos? None of this is exclusive to night working –most commuter rail services fit that description admirably.
What are an employer’s legal obligations in relation to those employees who work night shifts? Long before this study, there have been provisions in place to protect night workers contained within the Working Time Regulations 1998. They define a “night worker” as a person who works for at least three hours or more between the hours of 23.00 and 06.00 on the majority of their shifts or does so “as a normal course”. Case law suggests that anyone who works nights on one in three shifts or more will be classed as a night worker.
The protections set out in the Regulations include:
1) An eight hours average limit on a night worker’s hours of work and a set eight hours limit per shift for those who carry out certain hazardous roles (there are exceptions to the time limits for certain industries including the media).
2) Restrictions on the night time hours that those over compulsory school age but under 18 can lawfully work.
3) Employers must offer a free health assessment to any worker who is, or is intended to become, a night worker. Health assessments should continue to be available at regular intervals.
4) If a GP advises that a worker is suffering from health problems connected to the worker’s night work, the worker is entitled to be transferred, wherever practicable, to suitable daytime work.
Given the results of the report, are these protections likely to be adequate? The limit on average night hours at (1) above is unlikely to reduce the risk of adverse long term effects on health but at least (3) may make employees aware of their health issues and (4) will possibly allow them to move to day work in an attempt to improve their health. One could imagine considerable arguments about causation here – many other things beside night work can impact mood, hormone levels and brain function.
What are the alternatives? A call centre based in North Wales recently trialled a new alternative to night work. The call centre offered employees the opportunity to relocate temporarily to New Zealand and work their “night shifts” during what would be day time in New Zealand. An ingenious solution to this problem, though unlikely to be practicable for most employers and employees! Instead you could consider a rotating night shift obligation (though this may be unpopular with some) or the provision of lighting to mimic daylight. Essentially the obligation on the employer does not stop at the bare Regulations – these are supplemented by the 1974 Health & Safety at Work Act’s requirement to provide so far as practicable a safe system of work. If science shows that night work is physiologically bad for you, the onus on the employer will be to address that risk head-on and strict compliance with the Working Time Regulations might no longer be enough.
If you have any questions in relation to night workers and compliance with the Regulations, please get in touch.