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May 31, 2009

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HSE accused of being asleep on shift-work risks

A leading academic has warned that the health and safety of the UK’s

estimated 3.5 million shift-workers is being put at risk because the

HSE undertakes no routine inspections during atypical working hours.

In a report published on 1 June, University of Stirling Professor Andrew Watterson says shift-workers are receiving second-class treatment because no HSE staff are rostered to work outside of normal hours. This means that, after dark, there is no preventive health-promotion work and no routine ‘graveyard shift’ health and safety inspections.
According to Prof Watterson, who heads up the University’s occupational and environmental health research group: “Shift-workers face all the same risks as workers on normal hours, plus a slew of risks all of their own. Atypical working hours have been linked to conditions including breast cancer, prostate cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, heightened injury and disaster risk, fatigue, heart-disease risk factors, and pregnancy problems.

“Evidence is emerging that these health effects combined make shift-workers — particularly women shift-workers — far more likely to take early ill-health retirement.”
He accepted that some workers will always have to work anti-social hours but raised concerns that HSE guidance plays down many of the chronic health risks and ignores others, such as cancer and heart disease. This gap in the guidance could prevent both workers and their doctors from making the link between working hours and patterns of poor health.
Accusing the HSE of being “near dormant on the working-hours issue,” Prof Watterson added: “It undertakes no routine inspections and has taken no prosecutions in the last five years related to health risks arising from gruelling and body-wrecking work patterns. In fact, it barely takes any action on work-related ill health, at all.”
His report, ‘While you were sleeping’, published in Hazards, calls for more HSE resources to be targeted at workers on atypical hours, rigorous enforcement of working-time law, and an end to the UK’s Working Time Directive opt-out. It also urges the UK government to follow the Danish authorities’ recent move to compensate workers who have suffered breast cancer related to long-term night work.

Responding to the report, the HSE’s chief medical advisor, John Osman, said: “An important element of HSE’s normal inspections is an examination of provision for ensuring the health and safety of those working outside ‘office’ hours. This examination includes a physical inspection of the control measures and consultation with employees and trade unions, or safety representatives.

“Any concerns raised with HSE about shift or out-of-hours working are treated seriously and investigated — this may include an out-of-hours inspection. If HSE took any enforcement action it would not necessarily show as a Working Time Regulation matter and could fall under the HSWA.”

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