Are Maintenance Workers Really Different than Other Shiftworkers?

By Bruce Oliver and Dan Capshaw, Shiftwork Solutions LLC

Many maintenance managers will tell you their workforce is different than other shift workers — that their attitudes and behaviors are not the same. Recognizing, understanding, and accounting for how maintenance personnel evaluates shift schedules are essential to finding a schedule that will satisfy their needs and give you the required coverage to meet your business needs.

When it comes to shift schedules, what makes maintenance workers unique? Using our database of over 20,000 employee surveys, we compared the responses of maintenance personnel with those of the average shift worker surveyed. The database includes information on the following topics:

  • Demographics
  • Health and alertness
  • Working conditions
  • Shift schedule features
  • Overtime

Let’s look at the maintenance worker results for each of these categories and compare them to the overall shift worker results. If our assumption that maintenance workers are different is true, we should see some differences in the results.

Demographics

Almost 98% of the maintenance workers are male. This is a sharp contrast with other shift workers, 76% of whom are male. The maintenance field is clearly dominated by men. A graphic comparison of the two groups is shown in Figure 1.

Maintenance workers have worked 43% longer in their current department than the average shift worker (8.6 years for maintenance vs. 6.0 years for the average shift worker). Unlike production workers who can quickly learn a new job in another department such as quality control or the warehouse, maintenance workers tend to stay in their specialized trade. They usually are paid more and spend more time working weekday day-shifts, which also may influence their reluctance to transfer to other departments.

This finding has two important implications for maintenance workers:

  1. Maintenance personnel expects to stay in their jobs, possibly for their entire careers. If they are required to work on a schedule they don’t like, they may see little opportunity to correct the schedule. This makes the stakes and consequently the emotions high when alternative schedules are considered. In fact, the shift schedule is so important that a substantial percentage of maintenance workers said they will quit their jobs before changing to a new shift schedule (24.7%).
  2. Since maintenance skills are often transferable to other companies, maintenance workers are able to change jobs to another maintenance job in a different company. Losing people because of your schedule is expensive. Of course, this also means that an attractive schedule can be a very effective tool for recruiting and retaining the best maintenance personnel.

Health and Alertness

The opinions and preferences of maintenance workers and other shift workers are aligned when it comes to health and alertness. They have similar sleep patterns and habits (e.g. alarm clock usage and their hours of sleep while working various shifts are almost identical), and their self-reported alertness is similar.

Working Conditions

Maintenance workers also gave similar responses to those of the average shift worker on all facets of the work environment except the need for training. As shown in Figure 2, more maintenance personnel feel their employer doesn’t train nearly enough (65.8% from maintenance vs. 55.3% of the average shift workers). Maintenance employees are well aware that training can make their jobs faster and easier. They also often believe that more training for employees in other parts of the organization will reduce the number of breakdowns.

Shift Schedule Features

There were only a few schedule features where maintenance workers’ preferences differed from the average shift worker. As shown in Figure 3, a larger percentage of maintenance people prefer fixed shifts (88.3% from maintenance vs. 82.9% among all shift workers). Most maintenance workers are assigned to weekday day-shift since most preventative maintenance work is done during this time. Minimal staffing is needed for corrective maintenance on nights and weekends. The likelihood of maintenance workers getting the shift they want is pretty high, so it is understandable that more of them want fixed shifts.

Maintenance personnel gave lower ratings to the importance of keeping their current crew members together (maintenance = 3.11 vs. average shift worker = 3.71 on a 5-point scale where 1 is lowest and 5 is the highest possible rating). Unlike other job functions that require extensive teamwork, maintenance work is given to individuals or small groups. Maintenance work often requires a high degree of independence, making the individual team member composition less important than the team skill composition is to the success of the organization.

Overtime

One interesting difference noted between maintenance personnel and the average shift workers is their preference for time-off instead of overtime. When asked, “If you had to choose between more time-off or more overtime, what would you choose?” 70% of the maintenance workers said “More time-off” in contrast with 61.4% of the average shift workers. This is shown in Figure 4.

Maintenance personnel are paid more than other shift workers, so they are not as dependent on overtime. In addition, maintenance workers work most of their overtime on weekends, since many companies push the maintenance work to the weekends. Since weekends are the most desirable time off, it is not surprising that maintenance personnel will choose to have more time off instead of more overtime. To them, asking if you want more overtime is like asking if you want fewer weekends off.

Conclusions

The survey results reveal only a few differences between maintenance workers and the general shiftwork population. The most significant difference is the lack of mobility within a company coupled with the high mobility to move outside the company. Shift schedules are always important to shift workers, but if the only apparent choice to improve a schedule is to change companies, the importance to maintenance personnel is even greater. The nature of the job attracts strong, independent personalities, so when emotions run strong, discussions can be intense. This passionate response to schedule changes explains why so many managers perceive maintenance workers to be significantly different than other shift workers – even though their overall schedule preferences are very similar.

Since maintenance work can occur anywhere in the facility, maintenance workers have many opportunities to come in contact with employees from other departments. That puts them in a perfect position to support communications along the grapevine. It is therefore incumbent on the entire management team not only to be aware of the maintenance team’s differences but also to understand their unique and valuable roles in the organization and use shift schedules that work well for their maintenance team while still meeting their business needs.

Call or text us today at (415) 858-8585 to discuss your operations and how we can help you solve your shift work problems. You can also complete our contact form and we will call you.

11 steps you can take today to keep your employees safe and your shift work operation going

In light of the rapidly evolving COVID-19 virus situation, I’m going to make recommendations that would normally seem unusual.  Typically, we plan and create shiftwork structures for long-term success.  We look at costs, employee engagement and a wide range of best shiftwork practices.

Today, I want to focus on short term actions: what can plants do today to keep their doors open and keep their employees safe?

Consider these ideas:

  1. If you are running three 8-hour shifts a day, drop down to two 10-hour shifts.  Use the 4 hours of downtime to clean/sanitize.
  2. Don’t have shifts start/stop right after each other.  For example, if you run two 10-hour shifts, make the four hours of downtime occur as two sets of two hours: two hours between each shift.
  3. Eliminate face-to-face turnovers. Consider digital alternatives; perhaps passed along online.
  4. Ask for cooperation in a time of unusual circumstances.  For example, many parents will now have childcare issues.  Look for volunteers to swap shifts to accommodate those that need different shift times for the time being.  Allow employees to donate PTO to a coworker that really needs it.
  5. Stagger breaks and lunches to minimize too many people being in the break/lunchroom at the same time. 
  6. Ensure adequate self-cleansing equipment is readily available; not just at entry points but at every workstation.
  7. Hold training on “best practices” for staying healthy (cough into elbow etc.)
  8. Encourage people to stay home if they are sick.  Put any attendance “point system” on hold.  See our post on the cost of paid time off.
  9. Incentivize people to take vacation now.  For example, if they take vacation off between now and the end of May, you will allow them to take 50% more days off with pay.  Remember, vacation taken now is vacation that will not be taken when you need people as you ramp back up later.
  10. Take advantage of extra downtime to upgrade/repair equipment.  Get as much done now as you can so that when you ramp back up, you are firing on all cylinders.
  11. Lead by example.  Keep social distances.  Be seen as always following sanitary practices.

The COVID-19 crisis will pass.  When it’s over, you want your workforce to still be with you.  Additionally, taking care of your employees creates goodwill within the community.  The right steps now can help you get through these hard times while emerging as the employer of choice going forward.

Call us today if you’d like to keep your employees safe and your shift work operation going. We can help you tackle short term and long-term challenges.  We can help.  (415) 858-8585.

How to be thorough when assessing the true cost of paid sick leave

The health and well-being of the employees is the companies’ top priority. As news about the coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to develop, giving employees more paid sick time gets in the focus.

Although Congress has just passed (March 18, 2020) a major package including an expansion of paid sick days and emergency paid leave for a subset of workers, the bill is not universally applicable to all sizes of businesses and all employees.[1]  

Knowing the actual cost of paid time off can help companies assess the financial impacts of giving more paid time.  

So, what is the cost of the paid sick days? 

Calculating the cost of additional paid time off is relatively straightforward for companies with both 40 hour or 24/7 schedules.

Let’s start with this: there are 52 weeks in a year.  This represents 2,080 hours of work if your workers are on a 40-hour schedule and 2,184 hours of work if they are on a 24/7 schedule (per person before unscheduled overtime).  For example, increasing paid time off by 3% is equivalent to giving employees an extra 62 to 65 hours of paid time off every year.

However, most employers would continue the calculations as follows: “I just gave one person 64 more paid hours off.  I also now need to pay someone else to cover those 64 hours at an overtime rate. Thus, this cost me 64 pay hours plus 1.5 times 64 pay hours for a total of 160 pay hours!”

What’s amiss with this latter way of thinking? There are three inaccuracies with this calculation: 

  • First of all, the 64 hours that you are paying the person to be absent were going to be paid to him/her if she was at work so this is not an “extra” cost. 
  • Secondly, there is an extra cost to pay someone overtime to cover the newly created opening, however, overtime generally costs about 10% to 15% more than straight time; much less than the assumed 50% additional cost.  The reason for this is that while people get paid at a higher rate when working overtime, they don’t earn extra medical benefits, vacations, holidays, etc.  Those costs are associated with straight time wages, not overtime wages.  The liability for these costs is incurred when companies hire someone, not when someone works overtime.
  • And finally, the statement includes no consideration for what would happen if you didn’t give people paid sick time.  What is the cost of a sick person coming to work?  How many others will become sick? How well does a sick person perform?  How does a person view their company when they have always been there when needed and now that they are sick, they are on their own?  How are you viewed as a prospective employer if you don’t pay for sick days but the plant across the street does? The consequential costs of not providing paid sick leave are harder to measure, yet can be substantial.

There is another consideration with regards to paid sick time: How will it be administered? 

  • People shouldn’t be able to schedule it in advance because then it becomes a vacation instead of sick time. 
  • A use-it-or-lose-it policy encourages people to take all of their sick time every year.  A buy-back policy encourages people to come to work when sick so they can get a check at the end of the year when they sell the time back.
  • Carrying sick time over is probably the best idea, however, some companies don’t like carrying an ever-increasing paid sick time liability on the books, even though there is no additional cost.   There are several ways to make this more acceptable.  For example, let employees carry over as much time as they want, then when they retire, the company can buy back the unused sick time at a reduced rate.  This allows a worker to build up a huge store of sick hours that are available for use if they ever get seriously sick.  When they retire, they may have a year’s worth of sick time that is worth half a year’s wages. 

I’m not advocating for or against increasing paid sick time.  These guiding posts are here to help you make informed decisions ― about a subject that needs careful and accurate considerations.

Call us today to discuss your questions. (415) 858-8585.

[1]: https://www.vox.com/2020/3/18/21185065/congress-coronavirus-tests-paid-sick-days

“I Need a Nap!” — It’s time to sleep on shift.

Recently I was meeting with a team of union leaders and managers to discuss their shift schedules and our process for evaluating shift schedules and finding better alternatives. One of the things I often do during the introduction part of the meeting is to ask people to tell me what they want to discuss over the next couple of hours. In this meeting, one of the union leaders semi-jokingly said he wanted to know “when is the best time to sleep on shift?”

Well, that turns out to be a good question. Most of us have probably experienced the alertness boost resulting from a short duration nap. Studies have shown that both alertness levels and performance can improve when shift workers are allowed to sleep on night shifts.

Unfortunately, most organizations have no provision for sleeping on shift. The concerns raised are often around the manageability of the naps. Questions like:

  • How do we ensure people come back to work?
  • How do we keep people safe while they are napping?
  • How do we ensure the nap rooms are only used for naps?
  • What about sanitation?
  • You mean you want me to pay someone to sleep!?
  • If someone doesn’t need a nap, do we have to give them an extra break?
  • If one person takes a nap, and another doesn’t, is that fair?

I have some ideas for addressing some of these concerns, though not all of them. To the question about paying someone to nap, my answer is: If a person needs a nap, you can’t afford NOT to pay them to take a nap. A single mistake can cost much more than a 20-30 minute break for a nap. Especially if the 20-30 minute nap time is created by combining a break period and a nap period.

Let’s ignore the “mistake avoided” benefit for a moment and do some quick math:

  • Assume that a person working a 12-hour night shift is given 15 minutes of nap time that can be taken in conjunction with either a normal break or a lunch break. The extra time can only be used in the nap room.
  • If a person uses their nap break in conjunction with their 30-minute mid-shift lunch, they will come back to their workstation with 5.75 hours of work to complete before their shift is over. Since that 5.75 hours includes another paid break, assume that they actually only have 5.5 hours of actual work time remaining. 5.5 hours x 60 minutes = 330 minutes.
  • A 15-minute investment for the nap will require a 15 minutes/330 minutes or 4.5% improvement in productivity to break even.

Is a 4.5% productivity improvement feasible? That probably depends on the situation. If the work is self-paced, tedious, or intellectually challenging, the answer is almost always going to be “yes”. In many cases, the improvement will be significantly more than 4.5%, and the shift worker will be happier and safer.

Call or text us today at (415) 858-8585.

When should your shifts start?

As a Plant Manager or Human Resources Manager, in a shiftwork operation, you’ve certainly heard “Everyone that I know wants to start the shifts at such-and-such a time.”  You hear this but the question is – What do you do about it?

Should you survey the workforce and let them choose?  Do you have your own idea that possibly is soundly based on a certain business needs?  Can you have multiple shift times?  Can you try one time and then a different time and see which people like best?

This can be a complicated issue.  It can also have a profound impact on how your workforce views their workplace.  If you “impose” a start time then expect to hear a lot of “What we want doesn’t matter.”  If you leave it up to them, then be ready for them to choose something outside of your comfort zone as a manager.

I would like to make two simple points with this blog.  

The first point is, it is always a good idea to look for ways that the workforce can control their work environment.  Letting them choose something as small as a start time for their shift says, “We, as a company, believe that you know best what start time works for you.  You pick it and we’ll support it.”  This is a great message.

The second point is to make sure that you will be okay with what they choose.  This is true with start times or lunch menus or whatever you want them to pick.  

My rule of thumb on start times is that the Day shift shouldn’t start any earlier than 6:00 am.  If you think this is a good idea (read below) then you would make that a condition when you let them pick a start time.

So, what’s wrong with starting before 6:00 am?  Most 8-hour operations have the day shift start between 6:00 am and 7:00 am. The afternoon shift would start 8 hours later; the night shift, 8 hours earlier. For 12-hour shifts, employee preferences for start times tend to be about 30 minutes earlier than their preferences for 8-hour shifts. So, if you are on an 8-hour schedule that has a day shift that starts at 6:30 am, expect the workforce to want a 6:00 am start time for 12-hour shifts.

Our research has shown that employees starting at 6:00 am get about 20 minutes less sleep per night than those starting at 7:00 am. Before you run out and change your schedule, consider the following: (1) shift workers are typically locked into whatever start time you currently have. They will resist change. (2) The later the day shift starts, the later the night shift gets off. This is the trade-off. Ideally, a night shift would end early enough to allow the night shift to get home before the sun comes out. This means getting off earlier rather than later.

Call or text us today at (415) 858-8585.

What is the Worst Shift to Work? Night Shift? Afternoon Shift?

The night shift is difficult physically, but the afternoon shift can be hard on your family and social life.

In my last post, I talked about shift workers’ preferred shift, which is the day shift, and the implications of that preference on worker satisfaction levels.  An obvious follow-on question to the preferred shift assignment is to understand shift workers’ least-preferred shift.
Over the last 23 years working with shift work operations, I have observed that there is often one least preferred shift at a site, and it is either the night shift (also known as 3rd, graveyard, or sometimes the hoot-owl or hoot shift) or the afternoon shift (2nd or swing shift).  Which shift is least preferred at a particular site is typically driven by the demographics of the workgroup and the work environment.

Here are the overall results from our database of survey responses to the question “What is your least-preferred 8-hour shift?” : Least preferred 8-hour shift.

 

From a sleep management perspective, most shift workers have more trouble getting enough good-quality sleep on the night shift.  This makes it less desirable for facilitating high alertness.  On the other hand, it allows the people on night shift to meet other obligations in their lives like managing childcare, going to school, working a second job, and spending time with their families.

Afternoon shift allows many shift workers to manage their sleep patterns better (second shift workers get more sleep than either day shift or afternoon shift) so they often feel better on this schedule than on a night shift schedule.  The main downside to the second shift is that it requires work during the “prime-time” evening hours when family and friends are available.  For parents, this can be a deal-breaker since it may mean that they almost never see their families during the workweek.

This difference of opinion on the least desired shift is an opportunity when it comes to staffing your shift schedule.  On an 8-hour schedule, it is often possible to give an overwhelming majority of folks either their first or second choice of shift assignments and avoid the least desirable shift.  All it takes is some flexibility in the shift-bid system and sufficient cross-training of the workforce to meet the skill requirements on all shifts.

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Call or text us today at (415) 858-8585 to discuss your operations and how we can help you solve your shift work problems. You can also complete our contact form and we will call you.

Everyone Wants to Work Day Shift, Right? Think again!

We all know that shift work, and especially night shift, is difficult. For some folks, it can lead to disrupted sleep patterns and non-traditional social interactions with friends and family members. As a result, it is a common perception that, when it comes to shift work, everyone would prefer to work the day shift.

Over the last 20+ years, we have asked thousands of shift workers what their preferred shift assignment is. In an 8-hour, three-shift situation, you can see in the graphic that it is true that most people want to work day shift (71%), but there are also 15% that want to work the afternoon shift and 14% that want to work the night shift. In other words, in typical three-shift operation, you have a majority of people (33% on days + 15% on afternoons + 14% on nights =62%) satisfied with their shift assignment instead of dissatisfied with their shift assignment.
8-hour shift preference

A similar situation exists with 12-hour shift schedules.  When we asked shift workers whether they prefer a 12-hour day shift or a 12-hour night shift, 80% prefer the day shift and 20% prefer the night shift.  So like 8-hour shift schedules, you have a majority of people (50% on days + 20% on nights = 70%) satisfied with their shift schedule assignment.
12-hour shift preference

With these results, we can see that the majority of people do prefer day shift, but far from all of them. And, given that the typical 24-hour shiftwork operation is usually equally staffed on all shifts, or staffed more heavily on day shift than other shifts, we see that the majority of people get their preferred shift assignments even though the majority prefer day shift.

Call Us and We Can Help

Call or text us today at (415) 858-8585 to discuss your operations and how we can help you solve your shift work problems. You can also complete our contact form and we will call you.

Safety Footnotes

At Shiftwork Solutions, safety concerns are definitely something we have to pay attention to.  We keep abreast of safety research as it applies to shiftwork and brings that knowledge to the table when working with companies.

Over the years, there are a few standard issues that come up.  I’d like to cover those now.  I also would like to bring up a few safety practices that I have seen at other sites that lent themselves well to the establishment of a strong safety program.

As they occur to me…

  1. As one ages, the ability to get enough sleep in one session diminishes.  The main sleep period will shorten and people will find the need to nap during the day goes up.
  2. Shift length plays a very small role in how much sleep one gets in a day.  A person on an 8-hour shift may get a few more minutes of sleep when compared to a person on a 12-hour shift.  However, people get a great deal more sleep on days they don’t come in to work: about 60 to 90 minutes more.  So, its better to work a shift with more days off.  This usually means longer shifts.
  3. The older one gets, the harder it is to work more days in a row.  It is also harder to adjust to different shifts – a problem that is growing smaller as more and more companies get away from rotating shifts.
  4. We need about 8-hours of sleep a day.
  5. When people become sleepy, they care less about doing a good job.  This will start to show up in small ways as people begin to take short-cuts in their work.  Short-cuts can lead to quality, production and safety problems if left unchecked.
  6. Naps are a great investment.  A short, 10-15 minute nap can make one alert for the next several hours.  The problem with napping at work is that we don’t fall asleep instantly and, we need to deal with sleep inertia – the grogginess we feel after waking.
  7. A workforce that starts its day shift at 7:00 am will get about 20 more minutes per night than a workforce that starts its day shift at 6:00 am.
  8. People learn by (1) doing the task or (2) reading about the task or (3) watching the task being done or (4) conceptually imagining how the task might be done.  Apply this to safety at your site.  Don’t just rely on one method of making people “safety aware.”
  9. At one site we worked at, every time a group of people got together for a meeting, the first thing they did was ask “Who wants to tell us about a task they have coming up?”  The volunteer might say, “I am going to the warehouse to pick up some spare parts.”  Next, every single member would have to point out a safety item dealing with that task.  For example: “Make sure to wear your safety belt on the drive over” or “When you get there, make sure you wear the proper protective equipment” or “Check the pressure on your tires before the drive.”  As you can see, no issue is too small and there are lots of issues.  This exercise forces everyone to “think” for a moment.  I really like this idea.
  10. At another site, we didn’t hear “good-bye” or “I’ll see you around.”  The parting comment was always, “Work Safe.”
  11. At one of the mines we helped with schedule design we saw nearly 100 huge trucks moving around the site at any one time.  As we were tracking accidents we could see which hour of the week had the most safety incidences.  When that hour came up the following week, we would go out on the general communication system and say, “You are now entering the most dangerous hour of the week.”  As a result of the repeated reminder that hour nearly always became one of the safest hours of that week.
  12. When I go to a site, I sometimes leave off my safety glasses or ear plugs and see how the workforce responds.  When I get stopped right away by an hourly guy telling me to put on glasses, I know I am at a well run plant.  A plant that has a strong safety program is typically strong at a lot of other things as well. How would your site do in this respect?
  13.  

Work safe.

Call Us and We Can Help

Call or text us today at (415) 858-8585 to discuss your operations and how we can help you solve your shift work problems. You can also complete our contact form and we will call you.

Alertness on 12-hour night shifts

The problem with all night shifts, regardless of shift length, is that they don’t match up with the lifestyles of the rest of the world. On nights, you are expected to be awake when everyone else is asleep and then you are to sleep when everyone else is awake. A pretty tall order.

Most shift workers on nights report getting less sleep than on any other shift. There are several reasons for this. First of all, if your circadian rhythms are set to keep you awake during the days and asleep at night, they will actually be working against you. Secondly, we don’t like to sleep during daylight hours because we have family and social opportunities that we don’t want to miss. Finally, there is the sleep environment itself. It is hard to completely isolate yourself from the lights and sounds of the day when you are trying to sleep.

All of this means we sleep less when working nights. The problem with 8-hour shifts is that there are a lot of them. This generally means that the more shifts in a row you work, the farther you fall behind in your sleep. At the same time, the more shifts in a row you work, the abler your body is to match your circadian rhythms to your new sleep pattern, thus improving sleep. So, on the one hand, more days in a row means more fatigue while, on the other hand, more shifts in a row means better sleep – eventually.

Now let’s consider 12-hour shifts. There are a lot fewer shifts to work if you switch from 8-hour shifts to 12’s. This generally means that you will only be working 2-4 night shifts in a row instead of 5-7 8-hour shifts in a row.

One popular schedule pattern is the 2-3-2. On this schedule, you work 2 or 3 nights in a row before getting a 2 or 3-day break. The good news is that you don’t work too many nights in a row so you never fall too far behind in your sleep. The bad news is that since you work fewer nights in a row, you never get a chance to adjust to the shift. Additionally, you only have a few days off between shifts (on some patterns) which means you may have trouble readjusting to days (on your days off) as well.

If you go to a 4-on-4-off pattern, you will work more nights in a row and thus, fall farther behind in your sleep. However, the more nights in a row means (1) your body will adjust better to the night shift than if you worked fewer nights in a row and (2) more in a row means fewer times that you need to readjust to nights when you return to work and finally (3) you have 4 days off in a row which gives you a chance to adjust to days on your days off.

A 2-3-2 pattern means that you have to adjust to night shifts 78 times a year. A 4-on-4-off pattern only has 46 adjustments to nights in a year.

So, what is best for you? It comes down to your own behavior. If you find that you cannot adjust to nights at all, it is better to work fewer night shifts in a row to limit your accumulated sleep debt. If you adjust easily to nights, work more of them in a row to minimize those difficult first couple of days that we all go through when making the adjustment.

Call or text us today at (415) 858-8585