Can 24/7 Work?

Sept. 1, 2001
Assuming you can find enough workers to keep your plant doors open around the clock, will the benefits of running 24/7 outweigh the risks to employee health and safety?

Can 24/7 Work?

by Clyde E. Witt, executive editor

You’ve paid a lot of money for new machinery that never asks for a coffee break; and probably more than a lot for software to keep your business going non-stop. Maintenance to keep the equipment running is also a major expense. So what about the people who have to be there 24/7? Can they run without breaks and maintenance?

There’s mounting evidence that all work and no play does more than make Jack a dull boy. It makes him an unsafe and unhappy worker. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate that about five percent of American adults work evenings or are permanent night workers. Workers with irregular schedules make up another four percent, with an additional four percent of the workers on rotating shifts. This amounts to about 15.5 million people.

It’s estimated that these numbers will increase as more companies move toward Just-In-Time and 24/7 business strategies. Falling asleep at the wheel can be a dangerous and deadly experience. Highway safety statistics indicate that about half of all accidents are the result of the driver falling asleep. As more companies demand delivery of goods to more plants at all hours, this frightening statistic is expected to increase. Also, employees leaving the job after 12-hour shifts or working irregular schedules create greater risks.

A 1999 study by the National Sleep Foundation determined that 41 percent of shiftworkers have fallen asleep at the wheel at least once, compared with 28 percent of daytime workers.

Studies have shown that people who work at night generally get less sleep than daytime workers. If you’re sleep-deprived you become a risk. And how long you’ve been awake is also a factor. The night worker who gets up in the early afternoon, goes to her child’s soccer game then on to work, and is back behind the wheel at 8 a.m., may have been awake for 20 hours.

Staying alert

If you think staying alert on the job is all in your head, you’re right. The spot in your head is a small cluster of nerve cells in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. It’s the biological clock that regulates the timing of our bodies. This little clock tracks the time of day as well as the seasons of the year.

But the biological clock does not run at the same speed as your wristwatch. It follows a 25-hour day and it’s harder to reset than the clock on your VCR. Lucky for us, periods of sunlight and darkness help to reset our biological clocks to keep us within our 24-hour cycle. The term for these activities is circadian rhythms.

We have lots of circadian (from a Latin phrase meaning “about a day”) rhythms in our bodies, the most important of which to employers are sleep and wakefulness. Basically, we are “programmed” to sleep at night and be awake in the daytime. If your company is contemplating going to a 24/7 operation, there are some important things to keep in mind.

Healthy, happy and safe

Circadian Technologies Inc. ( has been in the business of helping companies shift to non-stop operations since 1983. According to Circadian Technologies Inc.’s (CTI) recent study, Shiftwork Practices 2000, more than 20 percent of the U.S. population are shiftworkers. They make a little more money than non-shiftworkers, but face special challenges. Overtime becomes a regular feature of life for these folks and the boss of the shiftworker is a bit more tolerant in permitting naps during break time.

Although the current economic slowdown is changing things a bit, keeping an employee happy remains the best way to keep him around. Moving to 24/7 disrupts everyone’s schedule. According to Bill Sirois, senior vice president and chief operating officer, CTI, most companies that have adopted 24-hour work strategies opt for 12-hour shifts. “It [12-hour shifts] offers more days, including more weekends, for the workers than rotating schedules.”

To compensate employees for overtime dollars previously earned working weekends, companies have had to increase base pay schedules because Saturday and Sunday are just two more workdays.

Can you manage 24/7?

Managing time and labor has always been a challenge. But going to 24/7 adds an additional layer of complexity.

“We think companies do recognize some of the issues, but underestimate the complexity of labor management in a 24/7 operation,” says Michael DiPietro, vice president, Kronos Inc. ( The Chelmsford, Massachusetts-based company is a provider of frontline labor management solutions.

DiPietro says one of the biggest problems companies have is staffing less desirable shifts. To get people to work evenings and nights, companies typically put in pay rules that pay premium time (an additional flat amount or percentage of base wage for each hour worked). “These rules can get quite complex, especially in a union environment. When you also consider overtime, you now have an exponential growth in the variations in how people can get paid,” he says.

Attendance can also be a problem. One reason is that with typically fewer managers and supervisors on evening shifts, employees may find it easier to take advantage and come in late or leave early. Another part of the attendance problem is that there are often fewer workers, and if there is an unscheduled absentee, it is more difficult to get another qualified person to cover.

Software programs for managing time and labor, just like other aspects of manufacturing and distribution, can help. Frontline labor management products, like those offered by Kronos and others, help by allowing a company to clearly define all the rules, then let software calculate the hours. Companies can also implement more complex rules than they could have under a manual system.

The software helps companies manage attendance by tracking the late arrivals and early departures and by providing controls against attendance abuse. In addition, software can help manage unscheduled absenteeism through more proactive scheduling of appropriate people, and tracking of unscheduled absenteeism.

“We can also provide labor management solutions,” says DiPietro, “to help organizations measure labor productivity by tracking the hours worked and costs against the output. Comparisons by shift help companies understand the productivity of these additional shifts.”

What can you do?

CTI asks its clients for tips on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to improving the health and welfare of employees at 24/7 plants. Here are a few ideas from a long list available in the report, Shiftwork Practices 2000, on-line at

• Install a weight room. Lab studies have indicated that exercise boosts alertness, especially at night. Exercise also improves cardiovascular health and helps employees sleep better during daylight hours.

• Involve your human resources people. Don’t expect employees working the nightshift to give up their time to take care of payroll or benefits issues because HR works traditional hours. Set aside a couple days each week when the HR people will be available 24/7.

• Subsidize childcare. Finding quality childcare is a challenge during daylight hours. At night it’s nearly impossible. Running your own childcare center might be the best option for keeping employees.

• Eat right. Providing nightshift employees with healthy snacks makes sense. Snacks high in sugar and fat are hard to digest, especially at night when our circadian rhythms are telling our bodies they should be sleeping. Provide fruit and vegetable snacks — and limited amounts of caffeine. Caffeine does boost alertness, usually 30 minutes after intake, but it can upset the stomach and make it harder for people to sleep when they get home.

• Permit break-time naps. Nearly half of the companies surveyed for Shiftwork Practices 2000 tolerate or encourage napping. Workers who take naps of up to 30 minutes, apparently the ideal amount of time, report feeling refreshed when they return to work.

• Light and music. Studies indicate exposure to bright light early in the shift helps shiftworkers stay alert. There are commercially available lights that match the wavelengths of the sun to help workers avoid feeling rundown at the end of the work shift. Music has also been shown to improve morale in the workplace. Research has pointed out that music enhances alertness and productivity.

Training for 24/7

When it comes to training employees for a 24/7 operation, the major change seems to be that you’ll have to do more of it. The fact that you’re changing how you do business impacts first on the number of employees you need, says Dan Kiurski, president, Partners for Success Inc.

“We do all kinds of employment assessment and consulting,” says Kiurski, “and getting the right people into the right job continues to be the challenge, no matter how many hours per day the company is running.”

One important tip about training your 24/7 workforce is to do any mandatory training on their shift, not work hours that fit the trainer’s schedule. If possible, plan training sessions back-to-back for different shifts of employees. One session can be offered at the end of the first shift and the next at the beginning of the second shift.

In addition to the training done by your own staff, experts suggest bringing in trainers from outside the organization to provide classes at irregular hours. Among the topics for training sessions, include a few on circadian rhythms so employees are aware of what is happening inside their bodies as well as inside the plant.

Maggie Elgin, director of education and workforce development, Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI), says, “Everyone involved in packaging tells us that training employees is vital to accomplishing their goals.”

The downside is that once a company has hired a good worker, it’s reluctant to let the worker have time out of the plant for long training sessions. And training funds are always limited.

In response to its members’ needs for better technical training, PMMI ( has created nine training courses that cover a range of topics from the basics of mechanical operations and troubleshooting, through maintenance and repair of equipment. The courses cover everything from basic components to specific training in form-fill-sealing packaging machinery, for example.

These courses are self-instructional and include textbooks, workbooks and a test at the end of the program.

Is it worth it?

The question of migrating to a 24/7 operation is a tough one and getting tougher in slow economic periods. You have to ask if there will be enough business to support the additional costs. It’s easy to be dazzled by numbers that show there are 168 hours in a week and your plant is sitting idle 40 percent or more of them.

Sirois says if your company is contemplating moving to a 24/7 operation, think it through. It’s critical that you have a well-planned idea before you discuss the idea with the people who will be most deeply involved.

“Do you have the business to go forward with continuous production?” Sirois asks. “You have to sell the employees with the business case for making a major change.”

It might be that the increased business you are experiencing is temporary. You might be able to handle the overflow of orders with overtime hours.

No matter what you do, keep in mind that you will be disrupting the lives, health and welfare of the most important asset in the plant, your employees. MHM

What’s up, dock?

WinCo Foods maintains a 52-bay loading dock in its 24/7 Woodburn, Oregon, facility. It uses Sentrol Industrial 2515 contacts on the roll-up doors, tied into its dock leveler system. This allows the dock levelers to operate only when a door is in the correct open position. Since the doors are manually opened, they don’t stop in the same spot every time. The sensors accommodate the side-to-side movement and allow the operator to open a door to varying positions while still activating the dock levelers. John Miller, WinCo’s lift truck maintenance supervisor, says this lowers maintenance costs because the doors don’t have to be continually adjusted to accommodate the range of a sensor. Visit

Robot works 24/7

Before installing 19 offloading/stacking/palletizing cells to service 38 injection molding lines, the Florence, Kentucky, facility of the Battery Components Division (BCD), a unit of Johnson Controls, was not able to fully staff its plant to cover all shifts of its seven-day work week. Now, to fulfill production requirements, a single robotics technician is needed per shift to monitor operations of a six-axis Nachi Model SF-133 robot, enter programming data for part changeovers and provide maintenance services. Visit

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