29 December 2011

Shift work should carry health warnings, say medicos

by Will Parker

The strong correlation between shift work, obesity and type 2 diabetes has led health experts to call for the poor diet of shift workers to be considered a new occupational health hazard. The recommendations appear in an editorial in the journal PLoS Medicine.

Shift work is notoriously linked to poor patterns of eating, exacerbated by easier access to junk food compared with more healthy options. Around 20 percent of the working population in the Western world is engaged in shift work and while shift work occurs in virtually all industries, it is particularly prevalent in the health-care sector. The authors note that past studies, including a 20 year study involving US nurses, have provided compelling evidence of the link between shift work and type 2 diabetes in women. "There is now good evidence that proper screening and intervention strategies in rotating night shift workers are needed for prevention of diabetes," they argue.

The authors are concerned that as the world of work becomes increasingly 24 hour, shift work will become more common, which will likely accelerate the progression of the global epidemic of obesity and diabetes. They add that although some of the effects of shift work are probably unavoidable (such as the disruption of circadian rhythms), eating patterns are obvious targets for intervention. This would, however, require a change in thinking and an acceptance that occupational health needs to move into territory more personal than before: the diet of workers.

"Working patterns should now be considered a specific risk factor for obesity and type 2 diabetes," the authors conclude. "Unhealthy eating could legitimately be considered a new form of occupational hazard and workplaces, specifically those who employ shift workers, should lead the way in eliminating this hazard."

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Source: PLoS Medicine