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The dangers of shift work


The time is 2 o’clock in the morning. An old woman is on her knees sweeping the floor. She works quickly. She must clean another six floors before the sun comes up.

Outside the night is dark. The woman works alone. She has nobody to talk to. So she thinks of her children at home.

She sees the kids sleeping all alone. She hopes they are safe.

In the morning they wiII go to school before she comes home. When they return she wiII leave for work. So she won’t see her kids until Sunday. Her heart feels sad.

The woman is a night shift worker. Her name is Dora. She is one of many thousands of shift workers in this country. Like all shift workers Dora suffers from many problems.

A new organization called the Health Information Centre (HIC) studied the health problems of shift workers.

HIC is a group of doctors. They help workers to fight for their health rights at work.

They say that thousands of workers like Dora can get sick because of shift work. This is what HIC says about the health problems of shift workers:


Many night workers get eye problems. The lights in buildings at night are very bright. And people don’t get much sleep when they work shifts. Both these things give workers eye problems.

One worker told HIC, “My eyes are sore -I think because of the night lights.” And another worker said, “My eyes are sore and go dim.”


Night workers get very I ittle sleep. Most night workers get two hours less sleep than other workers. And they don’t sleep well because of the noise in the day.

People who don’t sleep well get headaches. They suffer from nervous problems. Because their bodies don’t rest they get illnesses like cold and flu more quickly.


Many night shift workers get headaches. They get headaches from the bright lights and little sleep. One night shift worker told HIC, “I use headache powder everyday.”


Many shift workers bend over and work on their knees at night – mostly office cleaners. So many shift workers get sore backs and sore legs.


Shops and canteens are not open late at night. So most shift workers cannot buy food. They do not eat well. One woman said, “When I eat late my stomach doesn’t work well.”

Night workers smoke a lot of cigarettes and drink a lot of coffee to stay awake. Cigarettes and coffee can give workers stomach problems. So many shift workers get diarrhoea (running stomachs), constipation (blocked stomachs), and ulcers (sores in the stomach).


Shift workers also suffer from other problems. For example, they don’t often see their families and friends. And they don’t have time to join organizations or clubs. One woman said her husband left her because she had no time to sleep with him.

HIC says workers must fight to make shift work more healthy. And they tell workers to try to fight together in trade unions – because workers are stronger when they stand together in trade unions. HIC has made a list of things workers can fight for:

  • Workers must have a say In how shifts work.

  • Shift workers need more time to rest at night.

  • Shift workers must get good meals at night.

  • If the workers belong to a union, then the bosses must let them meet at night. The bosses must also talk to the union at night.

  • Shift workers must fight for shorter shifts.

  • Shift workers must get many free weekends to be with their families.

  • Shift workers must get transport to and from work.

  • Shift workers must get help if they are sick or hurt at work.

  • Bosses must give shift workers more pay.

HIC gives advice to trade unions about workers health rights. If your union needs advice about health problems you can go to HIC. Or you can write to them. Their address IS:

Health Information Centre (H I C) 1 Melle House Cnr Melle and Jorissen Streets Braamfontein Johannesburg Phone. 339 – 7411


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