Interim NIOSH Training for Emergency Responders: Reducing Risks Associated with Long Work Hours

V. Safe Work Practices for Managers and Workers

Remember the additional health and safety issues that are connected with working long hours.
nurse assisting a patient lying on a gurney
  • Working extended shifts or extended periods can prolong exposure to workplace hazards such as noise, heat, chemicals, and others.
  • These exposures could exceed established permissible exposure limits (PELs) or violate other health standards.
  • Employers must implement measures to monitor and limit worker exposures to health and physical hazards in the workplace, as required by the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Designing the Work Schedules

  • Use reasonable work hours to allow responders to sleep and recuperate after work shifts.
  • Prioritize and be selective about what work needs to be done and by when.

Consider these guidelines:

  • Regular rest: Establish at least 10 consecutive hours per day of protected time off-duty in order to obtain 7-8 hours of sleep. Shorter off-duty periods can compound the fatigue of long work hours.
  • Rest breaks: Frequent, brief rest breaks (every 1-2 hours) during demanding work are more effective in preventing on-the-job injuries and errors than a few longer ones. Allow longer breaks for meals.
  • Workload: Continuously examine work demands and prepare to deploy additional staff as necessary to prevent overloading those currently in the field. Remember fatigue will be a bigger problem when responders are working long shifts and the tasks are very demanding such as highly cognitive or emotionally intense work, physical exertion, extreme environments, or exposure to other health or safety hazards.
  • Rest Days: Plan one or two full days of rest to follow five consecutive 8-hour shifts or four 10-hour shifts. Consider two rest days after three consecutive 12-hour shifts. At minimum, plan one full day of rest per week for each team member (including the team leader). This can be done as a whole team (for example, all rest on Sundays) or individually. If the work must continue 7 days per week, each team member could be assigned a rest day so that everyone gets a rest day over the course of a week and the work goes on continuously. If days off do not seem logistically possible, use “no alarm days,” which is a day that workers sleep until they naturally wake up without an alarm.

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Page last reviewed: April 1, 2020