A steadily increasing number of people regularly work night shifts, with a study carried out by the TUC in 2019 finding that numbers were at their highest level since records began. According to a recent report from the Night Time Industries Association the UK’s night-time economy is now Britain’s fifth biggest industry in 2020, accounting for a minimum 8 per cent of the total UK workforce. Although the pandemic has led to a number of job losses for night workers, they remain a significant element of the working population and numbers are likely, over time, to return to or exceed previous levels.
The impact of night working on health and wellbeing is well documented and so, as the UK moves towards a more active night time economy, finding ways to protect workers’ health and wellbeing is more essential than ever.
What is a night worker?
A night worker is a member of staff working at least three hours during the ‘night period’. Typically, this is between 11pm and 6am, but employers may agree their own night period times, provided the window is a seven-hour period and includes midnight to 5am.
Rights of night workers
It is important for both employers and employees to be aware of the rights of night workers, such as the right to free health assessments.
There are limits on the hours night workers may work. They must not work more than an average of eight hours in a 24-hour period, with the average calculated over a 17-week period. Unlike the position with the 48-hour working week under the Working Time Regulations, night workers cannot opt out of this requirement, although workers and employers may agree to use a longer period (of up to 52 weeks) to calculate the average working hours.
In addition, staff aged 16 and 17 cannot work between midnight and 4am. There are restrictions on working between 10pm and 6am but there are exceptions in certain industries, such as agriculture or retail.
The law requires employers to keep accurate records of hours worked and to keep these records for at least two years. This is to monitor hours worked and ensure workers do not exceed these limits
Risks of night work
While night workers can ensure that a business progresses smoothly, there are also risks associated with night work.
There is evidence to suggest that night workers are more prone to experiencing certain health conditions, such as heart disease, metabolic diseases and certain cancers. Many studies have linked these conditions to the disrupted sleep patterns that night workers have to adopt.
Night work can also have a negative impact on the mental health and wellbeing of night workers. Studies have shown that night workers are more likely to experience mood disorders, sleep disorders and other negative impacts on their wellbeing.
Are employers liable?
Employers owe the same duty of care to night workers as they do to those working during the day and must take active steps to safeguard their health and safety. If an employee is vulnerable to certain conditions, then the duty of care owed to that individual is higher.
Where a night worker develops a condition, an employer could face a personal injury claim if it can be attributed to their working patterns. Although this causal link can often be difficult to prove, an employer may be liable, for personal injury or under health and safety legislation (or both), if they are found to have breached their duty of care, such as by providing an unsafe work environment, or placing high-risk individuals on night shifts.
Practical advice for employers
To offset the risks associated with night working and reduce the risk of incurring liability, employers must take positive steps and implement preventative measures. For example, employers should:
check in with night workers regularly;
ensure workers complete health assessments, to identify any issues or health conditions, and act upon any identified risks as soon as possible;
keep appropriate records to ensure they comply with working time limits; and
provide night workers with appropriate guidance on how to stay physically and mentally healthy whilst working nights.
Laura Jackson is a senior associate at Dentons