shift work

In this article, Karuna Santwan Baskar pursuing Diploma in Entrepreneurship Administration and Business Laws from NUJS, Kolkata, discusses Legal framework and regulations concerning shift work in India.

Shiftwork is not new. People have worked on shifts through the years in the medical field, transportation, emergency services, the defence, the police force and so on. Factories and mines have also worked on shifts to maximise available resources. What is new is a whole range of industries spawned by globalisation, providing services across time-zones in a 24/7 economy. The IT and ITES industry, in particular, has created the need for ever-increasing numbers of people working on shifts through the day and night. A new breed of white-collar shiftworkers. For employees willing to work during the night or other non-traditional hours, there are a large number of job opportunities available. These jobs pay relatively well and can even benefit those who wish to combine their work with study or family care responsibilities. As a result, huge numbers, especially of young people, are now working on non-traditional shifts.

Types of work schedules

Shiftwork could follow various kinds of schedules, some of which are mentioned below.

Fixed schedules – some jobs involve working consistently on the same shift, although the hours may be non-traditional. This includes the so-called ‘graveyard shift’ during the night, evening shifts which end in the early hours of the night, and early morning shifts.

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Rotating shifts –here employees change to a new shift periodically. In some cases, the shifts can change every few days, or after a few weeks or even months.

Extended hours – employees work for extended hours for example 12 hours a day for 4 days followed by 3 days off.

Weekly offs – some shiftworkers get the weekends off, others may have fixed weekly offs during weekdays, and yet others get their weekly offs by rotation, where the actual days off may vary but are scheduled ahead of time.

There are many other variations on this depending on the nature of the job.

Impact of shiftwork on health and safety

Working on these kinds of non-traditional hours does have clearly documented negative effects on employees. Human beings are basically diurnal creatures, in that their systems are designed to be awake, alert and active during the day and asleep during the night. The body’s natural circadian rhythms are disrupted when a person attempts to work during the night and sleep during the day. Since a lot of the bodily systems are governed by these ‘body clocks’ the disruption has effects on sleep, digestion, blood pressure, reproductive systems and also psychological reactions. Shiftworkers often have limited access to nutritious food, resulting in greater consumption of easily accessible junk food which further affects health.

Research has indicated that shiftwork results in digestive problems, weight gain, lowered immunity, sleep difficulties. Long-term health effects include increased risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, gastrointestinal disorders like ulcers, auto-immune disorders and infertility.

Shiftwork also affects psychological and emotional well-being. Shiftworkers tend to have mood-swings, be prone to depression, memory loss, are hyper-sensitive, and are prone to make more errors. These are a result of hormonal changes as well as sleep-deprivation which is very common among shiftworkers.

Shiftworkers are prone to make more errors when they are tired, especially towards the end of their shift. These can result in serious hazards, especially if they are working on machinery or driving a vehicle, either during their shift or returning home.

Shiftwork also disrupts family and social life since the shiftworker is out of sync with the routines of family and friends. This often results in relationship issues with spouse, children and even extended family and also tends to isolate the individual from his or her social circle because of non-availability during typical leisure hours.

A specific concern especially for women employees are security concerns of working during the night and travelling to and from the workplace in the night.

Laws related to Shiftwork

The ILO’s Night Work Convention (1990) defines night work as work that is performed over at least seven consecutive hours which include the period from midnight to 5 a.m. The Convention aims to ensure that night workers are compensated appropriately and to regulate a minimum level of health protection, opportunities for career advancement and assistance in fulfilling family and social obligations for the workers. While the Night Work Convention has only been ratified by 15 countries, it is an indicator of a basic standard of care that ought to be extended to all night-shift workers globally.
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The Convention prescribes, among others:

  • Regular health-assessments and access to medical advice on work-related health concerns;
  • First-aid facilities and quick access to further treatment, if necessary;
  • The option to transfer to a similar job, where possible, and other employment benefits if the worker is found unfit for night work for reasons of health;
  • Alternatives to night work for women workers during pregnancy and for a period following childbirth;
  • Rate of compensation that accounts for the peculiar nature of night work;
  • Access to appropriate social services;
  • Adequate consultation with workers’ representatives on matters relevant to night workers.

In the UK, employers must offer employees a free health assessment before they begin to work on night shifts. They must take into account that working at night could increase an employee’s stress levels, and if a doctor states that an employee has developed health problems due to night shift work, the employer is required, where possible, to offer suitable alternate work.

Legislation in India related to night shift work

In India the legislation pertaining to night shift mainly relate to restrictions on women working during the night.

The Factories Act 1948 states that no woman shall be required or allowed to work in any factory except between the hours of 6am and 7pm. The Factories Act was amended in 2005 permitting women to work at their required timings.

According to the Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act, 1966, no woman shall be required or allowed to work in any industrial premise except between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m.

The Mines Act, 1952 prohibits employment of women in any mine above ground except between the hours of 6 a.m. and 7 p.m.

The Shops and Establishment Act states that no women shall be required or allowed to work in any establishment after 9:30 PM.

The IT and ITES industry were permitted to employ women after 8pm, on condition that they are provided with transportation upto their doorstep with adequate security measures in place.

Employer responsibilities: safety measures

While it is true that there are safety concerns for women working at night, the solution is not to ban night shift work, thereby depriving women of potential job opportunities. Instead, keeping in mind the safety risks for women, companies could adopt measures to protect women employees during night shifts. These could include:

  • Arrangements to provide additional security for women employees who work before 6am or after 8pm
  • Additional security measures for company-provided transport during the night including escorts, GPS based monitoring, alarm systems
  • Restricted entry into the workplace
  • CCTV cameras at important locations which are functional and monitored 24/7
  • Training of women in self-defence and other safety measures
  • Emergency numbers and designated authorities who can be contacted at any time
  • Periodic and random checks of all security measures

Employer Responsibilities: Measures to protect employees against the negative impact of shiftwork

Besides security issues, it is clear that night shift work and rotating shifts have a negative impact on physical and mental health, social and family life irrespective of gender. Therefore measures to minimise the negative effects of shiftwork should be applicable not only to women but to men as well.

While more research is required as to precise ways in which risks associated with night shifts and rotating shifts can be mitigated, measures should include the following aspects:

Design of Work Schedules

Alternatives to permanent night shift, avoiding quick shift changes, evaluating start-end times (away from rush hour – minimise sleep disruptions, keep in mind family schedules), having suitable rest breaks, ensuring regular and predictable schedules.

Work environment

Importance of adequate lighting and temperature controls which affect circadian rhythms, access to hot and nutritious meals during evening and night shift, clean air and reduced exposure to toxic substances since circadian disruption increases sensitivity to toxic exposure.

Access to Health Care and Counselling

Non-traditional work schedules may not permit access to these facilities, so employers must make them available. This is particularly important since shiftwork itself is likely to cause increased physical health problems as well as problems in personal and family life as well as mental health issues.

Women, in particular, face additional risks related to their reproductive functions. Therefore, as far as possible, pregnant and nursing mothers should be offered alternative options.

Training Programmes

Companies must provide training to shiftworkers and their families on strategies to reduce the negative effects of shiftwork and to better manage a shiftworking lifestyle. Research has indicated that working for a long period does not automatically lead to better adjustment to shiftwork, whereas training can make a difference. Such training should be mandatory.

Social programmes

Since shiftworkers social lives are greatly impacted, efforts to organise social activities will greatly reduce the feelings of isolation experienced by most shiftworkers.

Keeping in mind all the hazards and effects of shiftwork, it is imperative that employers take the responsibility to provide adequate protection for their employees. Some employers proactively take measures and engage in good human resource practices to protect their employees and to minimise the effects of shiftwork. However, unless there is legislation related to this, such practices will not be followed by all employers.


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Nightshifts for women: growth and opportunities – ASSOCHAM and NCW

International Labour Organisation C171 – Night Work Convention, 1990 (No. 171)

Plain Language about Shiftwork – Roger R. Rosa and Michael J. Colligan, DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 97-145


  1. […] there is a need to address the safety concern at the workplace, banning women from working is not a solution. Companies must do a better job at addressing safety […]


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