A better way to plan shift rotation

By Chang Heng-hao 張恆豪 Huang Yi-ling 黃怡翎  / 

Thu, Jan 04, 2018 - Page 8

At 7am on Wednesday last week, yet another bus crash occured on the streets of Taipei. The accident, in which a signpost was knocked over, is thought to have been caused by driver fatigue, and once again focused attention on bus drivers’ work hours.

Responding to controversy over the Executive Yuan’s proposed amendments to the Labor Standards Act (勞動基準法), Premier William Lai (賴清德) on Dec. 23 last year, said that government policy regarding intervals between work shifts under shift rotation arrangements have been misunderstood, and that exceptional provisions only apply to shift rotation systems and are limited to the “junctures” of shift rotation.

Minister Without Portfolio Lin Wan-i (林萬億) said earlier that the Executive Yuan’s proposed amendments comply with the views of the EU and are simply catching up with world trends.

It looks as though the Executive Yuan has a lot of homework to do concerning how other nations provide reasonable rest times for workers — especially about how shifts are adjusted for employees working under shift rotation systems — and the research that has been done in this field.

The EU’s Working Time Directive stipulates that workers need a daily rest period of at least 11 consecutive hours and an additional weekly uninterrupted rest period of at least 24 hours.

By comparison, although the Labor Standards Act has provisions regulating both normal and extended work hours, it lacks regulations regarding daily consecutive rest periods. As a result, some employers use “patchwork work schedules” of fragmented work hours, which they see as a convenient way of flexibly adjusting their use of labor power.

For example, some bus companies have “distorted” shift schedules under which drivers work for three hours starting from 6am and another five hours starting from 2pm. Although these work hours comply with the legally mandated eight-hour working day, it means workers remain alert when they are supposed to be resting, so that they cannot get proper rest.

Do such fragmented work hours comply with the authorities’ definition of rotating shift work and are they covered by the regulations concerning intervals between rotating work shifts?

On Dec. 23, a train guard suddenly died at home. His employer, the Taiwan Railways Administration, said that the guard’s average daily work time for last month was six hours and 40 minutes, but the guard’s shift schedule for his first two working days, as revealed by news media, shows that he worked on trains from 4:32pm to 11:58pm on the first day and 7:09am to 10:14am on the second day.

Although he got a little rest during the intervals between train services, his rest times were very fragmented, with his continuous rest periods ranging between less than seven hours at the longest and four hours at the shortest.

Considering how commonplace such unreasonably fragmented work hours are in the transport sector, the government should take active measures to deal with this problem.

There is a recommendation about how to arrange shift rotation that has long been accepted by the international community, which is to adopt forward rotation, meaning a method of shift scheduling that complies with the human body’s biological clock by delaying work hours at each step.

In a three-shift system, for example, workers’ shifts are rotated from the day shift to the evening shift, then from the evening shift to the night shift and from the night shift to day the shift. Using this method, workers can usually get nearly 24 hours’ rest at rotation time.

However, the Executive Yuan’s proposed amendments would allow using backward shift rotation, which means that workers’ shifts are rotated backward from the day shift to the night shift and so on, allowing only eight hours’ rest between shifts when they are rotated.

There is already plenty of scientific evidence to show that forward shift rotation can reduce negative effects on circadian rhythms and the resulting disruption to workers’ biological clocks.

Backward rotation, in contrast, can disrupt workers’ autonomic nervous systems, heighten their risk of cardiovascular disease, cause fatigue and affect sleep quality.

A 2016 South Korean study of more than 4,000 electronics factory workers on a three-shift rotation system found that backward shift rotation has about twice the risk of causing sleep problems compared with forward rotation.

A research project done in 1982 found that about 30 percent of employees working under backward shift rotation said they had fallen asleep at work, and about 80 percent of workers said they needed two to four days or even longer to get used to the new work and sleep cycle after changing shifts.

When people work under such conditions, there is a greater risk of occupational accidents and the effect it has on their daily routines can easily lead to conflict with their family members.

If the government sincerely wishes to learn from the systems used in other nations, it should provide workers with reasonable rest times and forward shift rotation, which works better with people’s biological clocks.

It should also amend the Labor Standards Act to include a regulation that all employees should have consecutive rest periods when not working, thus avoiding fragmented work hours.

These steps are essential for Taiwan to shake off its reputation as a “nation of overwork.”

In view of the various research projects done around the world since the 1980s, Taiwan this year must not adopt retrograde legal amendments that would drag our work-time system back into the bad old days.

Chang Heng-hao is a physician in National Cheng Kung University Hospital’s occupational and environmental medicine department. Huang Yi-ling is the executive director of Taiwan Occupational Safety and Health Link.

Translated by Julian Clegg