Does shift work plus a poor diet equal an occupational hazard?


Shift work is becoming increasingly common in this 24/7 world, but it may come at a price: worse health for workers.

An editorial published today in the journal PLoS Medicine draws attention to the health risks of shift workers, including a greater chance of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes from bad eating habits and sleep disorders because of disrupted circadian rhythms. The authors (PLoS Medicine editors) cite a study published in the journal this month in which 69,269 women were followed for 18 to 20 years. Researchers found that longer periods of rotating night shift work were associated with a moderately increased risk of type 2 diabetes, which may be partly controlled by keeping weight down.

“If the data from this and other studies are to be taken at face value,” the authors wrote, “shift work has the potential to accelerate the progression of the global epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Obviously, diet is only one component in the pathway to diabetes, but, unlike the metabolic consequences of a deranged circadian rhythm it is potentially amenable to easy intervention.”


Of course, getting people to eat more healthfully is easier said than done, they note. Although most people know they need to incorporate more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins into their diets, they typically don’t, risking weight gain and cardiovascular disease.

Perhaps, the authors argue, workplaces could be more proactive in helping workers -- especially shift workers -- adopt better eating habits. “From the accumulating evidence, it seems that unhealthy eating could legitimately be considered a new form of occupational hazard,” the authors said. “Such a perspective is not so far away from the thinking that led to the first laws that regulated worker safety, and arguably the effect on public health may be even greater.”