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August 19, 2003
Work Breaks Help Minimize Accidents

By KELLY GRIFFIN
Contributing Editor, Best Practices in HR

For a Limited Time receive a FREE Compensation Special Report on the "Top 100 FLSA Q&As," designed to provide you with an examination of the federal FLSA Overtime Regulations in Q&A format, including valuable tips for FLSA Coverage, Salary Level, and Deductions from Pay. Download Now

A recent study at an industrial plant produced tangible proof of something that HR professionals and shift supervisors have suspected all along: Accident risk increases significantly the longer an employee works.

Researchers P. Tucker, Ph.D., S. Folkard, and I. MacDonald shared the results of their study in an article, titled "Rest Breaks and Accident Risk," published in The Lancet (Volume 361, February 22, 2003, http://www.thelancet.com). The researchers reviewed on-duty accident records for a three-year period at a car assembly plant in England. The study results found that the risk of accidents increased as the time worked without a break grew.

The researchers reviewed the accident records for two different shifts, each with the following schedules: two hours of work followed by a 15-minute break, two more hours followed by a 45-minute meal break, two more hours, a 10-minute break, and nearly 90 more minutes of work until the shift ended.

Fatigue affects accident risk. The study conclusion notes, "Risk of an accident rose significantly over the four half-hour segments that made up a two-hour work period." The researchers also found that after a rest break, the risk was minimal such as it would be at the start of a shift. Unfortunately, though, "the restorative effects of breaks were short-lived," noted the study. As work time increased after each employee break, the risk of accident accelerated.

The researchers suggest that in many work situations, regular short breaks, such as 10 minutes every hour, could improve work performance. They caution, however, that, "in some situations, the scheduling of additional rest breaks could increase risk, for example, if they involve shutting down and starting up [equipment] procedures that are inherently more risky."

Exclusive insights. An additional commentary for Best Practices readers from P. Tucker, Ph.D.:

"Rest breaks are more than just a way of making the working day (/shift) more bearable; they are an important means of managing risk. This research highlights the surprising lack of empirical evidence regarding the impact of rest break schedules in the workplace. For example, up to now there has been little hard evidence produced regarding the optimum timing of rest breaks, other than for hard physical work. Future research should also consider what effects, if any, are associated with different activities that are undertaken during rest breaks e.g., (i) how ‘restful’ the break activity should be; (ii) food intake."

Taking the time to review your firm’s policies and practices regarding work schedules and breaks might be a good idea. Even work tasks that don’t involve dangerous activities that could lead to accidents might be better accomplished when employees take regular, short breaks. For example, employees entering data into computers or keying long reports into word-processing programs may make fewer errors with more breaks from the work. And fewer errors can often translate into fewer costs and better profit margins for the company.

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