Shiftworkers and employers are always in search for the perfect shift schedule. Usually the debate is about 8 and 12 hour shifts and which is better. However, there is more interest now in the ’super-long’ shifts of 16 and 24 hours.

Residents in hospitals have been subjected to the 30-hour-plus on-call shift schedule for years. When research established that this length of shift (as well as total hours worked) put residents and patients at risk for medical errors and automobile crashes, efforts were made to reduce the hours of work for residents. While this effort is on-going, other professions and workplaces are considering increasing their hours of work from 8 or 12 to 16 and 24 hours per shift.

Fire fighters in many cities in the United States and some in Canada have had 24-hour shifts for many years. The rationale here is that in this workplace, where it is possible to sleep between fire calls, that the risk of fatigue is reduced and this makes 24 hours at work possible.

The real advantage for shiftworkers on 24-hour schedules is that they have a great deal of time away from work and more time to devote to their family and personal interests. It is not uncommon for these shiftworkers to have other jobs, businesses or educational pursuits.

On the other hand, because workers spend so much time away from work, it is more difficult to keep their skills up to par. They may need to re-orient themselves to work processes when they return and they may have missed critical updates while they were away. Employers find it more difficult to ensure training and communication are up-to-date as well. Employees who commute long distances to work may find that they are awake much beyond the 24 hours and they will be very vulnerable to crashes while driving.

The real danger is that the expected ‘down times’ or opportunities for sleep, do not transpire. In those instances when constant effort and attention is required, the potential for sleepiness and fatigue-related risk is very high. In fact research shows that beyond 16 hours worked, the risk increases exponentially.

Would 24-hour shifts work in your workplace? Is ebb and flow of work a consistent feature of your workplace? In the ebb periods, can an employee sleep or are they required to be awake at their work station, albeit with less intense effort or minimal duties? Do employees commute some distance to work?