Twelve-hour shifts are still one of the most frequently debated topics in shift work management. Managers, shift workers, union representatives, federal regulators, corporate policy-makers, and academic experts continue to question and debate how 12-hour shifts compare to 8-hour shifts.
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In our role as the leading consulting firm in shiftwork management, CIRCADIAN is frequently asked whether the concerns about 12-hour shifts are justified and whether the enthusiasm of the proponents of 12-hour shifts is merited. We are also frequently asked to help plants solve the wide range of practical issues surrounding the successful implementation and management of 12-hour shifts, not the least of which is what schedule out of the myriad of 12-hour shift schedule possibilities, is the best one for their site.
CIRCADIAN consultants have gathered a great deal of first-hand information from surveying organizations who use 12-hour shifts, to learn about the practices, policies, results and impacts. Over the last two decades, CIRCADIAN has also collected considerable data on the benefits and complications of 12-hour shifts through our work with utilities, chemical plants, oil refineries, pulp and paper mills and other industries running 24 hours, 7 days a week. During this process, we have surveyed tens of thousands of shiftworkers and conducted interviews with thousands of managers, superintendents, supervisors, shiftworkers, regulators and shift schedule specialists.
Other than laboratory studies on alertness, sleep and human performance, there has been very little scientific research to evaluate 12-hour shifts in actual industrial operations. Full scale simulation studies that we have conducted at the Institute for Circadian Physiology indicate that fatigue and loss of alertness are not increased with 12-hour schedules, as compared to 8-hour schedules. However, in reality it is almost impossible to recreate all of the variables of the workplace in a laboratory setting. Therefore, the experience and data from the workplace is the most important to consider.
We are often asked if we know of any places where 12-hour shifts failed and people returned to 8-hour shifts - and the answer is yes. In the few cases where this has occurred, it was usually a result of management making decisions without a careful consultation with the employees. As a result, the employees misunderstood and distrusted the motive for the change and did not provide the needed support to make the 12-hour shifts work. Employee support is required for any scheduling change to fully succeed, and this is true for 12-hour shifts as well, particularly when it comes to ensuring coverage for vacations and other absences. The other cause for returning to an 8 from a 12-hour shift is the use of excessive, mandatory overtime usually due to understaffing, which negates the advantage of 12's (i.e. more days and weekends off).