The announcement by the Government of Denmark to compensate female shift workers who developed breast cancer is gaining the attention of labor advocates worldwide. Since the World Health Organization's 2007 ruling that shift work is "probably carcinogenic to humans", these groups have asked for more research to determine how bad shift work really is. While not scientific, the fact that the Danish Government is compensating these women is a good indicator that shift work is really not very good for people.
In the US, Australia, Britain and Canada, approximately 20% of the working population does shift work. Whether it be nurses, fire fighters, mine workers, factory workers, mail sorters or policemen, modern society functions based on some portion of the society being "up and at it" 24 hours a day. Because shift work has long been considered a bit of an invasion of people's private lives, compensation has been increased for nonstandard hours and this has made the shifts desirable for many people looking for additional income.
Now it looks like shift compensation could become even greater as governments and companies continue to need the "lights kept on" to maintain essential services and to enable production rates but must also recognize the risks associated with the type of work. The problem with paying employees for taking the additional risks is that with the ever present, "it won't happen to me" mindset and the lure of additional cash, the actions of overzealous workers may end up costing health care systems and the government, which means all of us.
Increases in the number of MRI screenings for breast cancer, plus treatment of the additional diagnoses of breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men could be more expensive than the additional compensation offered to employees working the shifts. If workers who fall ill decide to the sue employers for willfully promoting shift work even with the knowledge that it is hazardous, this could be very expensive.
As for the personal cost, it will be unmeasurable when people are diagnosed and find out that they are dying because of the job they held. When we consider that studies have attributed a four-fold increase in prostate cancer to male shift workers, the numbers are significant. Also significant is the 60% increase in breast cancer found amongst female shift workers in a recent study.
All that said, maybe if we are all fortunate, factoring in the additional costs to employee salaries could cause a decline in the use of shift work or promote research towards ways to prevent the increased cancer risk. While we cannot get rid of the nurses working shifts, maybe we can get by with fewer of them working those hours and maybe the mail can be a little slower to arrive. Companies may be easier to convince if they have to pay significantly more for the same service simply based on the hours in which work is performed.
For those of you stuck on the night shift, keep an eye on the upcoming research. You never know what the smart people might come up with. It seems that some research is pointing toward "sunglasses" for nighttime to prevent different wavelengths of light from reaching the eyes and throwing off the body. If the approach works, it would add a new meaning to the term "safety glasses" and surely create a whole new genre of after hour infomercials.