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Connection Between Overtime and Safety Might Be Overstated

In a study documented in the February 2007 edition of the Journal Of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Harris Allen Jr. PhD, Thomas Slavin MS, MBA, and William Bunn III MD, JD, MPH, determined that despite research to the contrary, there is no evidence that long work hours cause across the board adverse outcomes for employees. The researchers did say that when weekly schedules hit 60+ hours, workers did report new injuries and health problems, but these were mostly attributable to factors like prior poor health rather than to the long hours themselves.

The study was conducted by comparing information compiled in a database for almost 2800 workers at a heavy manufacturing plant. The researchers analyzed the effects of work hours on a broad range of health, safety and productivity outcomes. The unidentified company used in the study strongly encouraged employees to work overtime, but didn’t mandate it. Workers at the plant clocked an average of 43 hours per week.

The results of the comparison challenged the widely held belief that each hour an employee works beyond 40 hours increases health and safety risks and reduces productivity. In fact, the researchers didn’t find any negative effects until the 60-hour-per-week mark. And even when workers reached this mark, the only negative consequences the researchers found were an increased risk of workers’ compensation claims for hourly female employees with a history of such claims and new musculoskeletal diagnoses for older workers.

Furthermore, while employees in these two subgroups showed a higher rate of injuries and other health problems when they worked 60+ hours, employees with other job and demographic characteristics showed no additional safety or health problems when they worked schedules of 60 or more hours. In addition, employees who worked from 48 to 59 hours showed no increase in physical or mental health issues regardless of their job and demographic characteristics.

The researchers went on to note that their findings also challenged policies like the Working Time Directive established by the European Union to protect workers from exploitation by employers. While it addresses employment issues such as how many breaks employees can take, and how much time off they are entitled to, the directive’s most significant regulation is aimed at limiting the average working time for employees in the European Union to 48 hours a week.

The conductors of the study believe that policies like this one may provide an obstacle that keeps private-sector employers from being competitive. They felt that employers whose operations are structured in ways that are maximized when employees work overtime were especially hindered.

The researchers concluded that although work hours are a factor, they should be considered in conjunction with other factors that comprise the larger context within which employee health, productivity and safety outcomes are determined. More emphasis needs to be focused on prior health and other factors that may be exacerbated by the number of hours worked. These are better predictors of employee safety and lost productivity.