Labor Laws for Rotating Shifts

Manufacturing work often requires rotating shifts.
••• work image by Alison Bowden from

Rotating shifts are a way of life for many people in factory work, as well as for people working in 24-hour facilities, such as hospitals, prisons, and police stations. When people work rotating shifts, they often work days, evenings, and then nights, forcing them to develop unnatural sleep habits. Few regulations or legal cases exist about rotating shifts in particular, but there are three major laws to guide employers.

Essential Job Function

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a major piece of legislation designed to protect people from discrimination in the workforce. According to a 2009 article in Chronobiology International, a medical journal covering sleep-related issues, sleep deprivation from working night shifts is a cause of increased accidents. People who work night shift are more likely to face long-term health problems and are more likely to be injured or killed while commuting or working. In a 2006 decision, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined in Rehrs vs. Iams Co. that working shift work is not an “essential function” of a job. Therefore, when someone requests a non-rotating shift for medical reasons, the company has no legal right to deny that request when all job functions can be performed during daytime hours.

Direct Threat Clause

Despite studies indicating that shift workers are at greater risk for job and personal injuries, the ADA prevents employers from screening out employees unless those candidates are considered a “direct threat” to the work of the company. A “direct threat” means that a person would, as an employee, pose a likely risk of significant harm to him/herself or others, which is a difficult case for an employer to make before hiring someone. Even if an employer determines or discovers that someone has a condition that would make rotating shift work difficult, the employer would have to prove that case definitively if the candidate filed a complaint.

OSHA Unusual Shift Requirements

OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, does not have specific regulations for rotating shifts. OSHA is the regulating body for workplace rules in the U.S. OSHA does have recommendations, however, including that managers and supervisors be trained on how to recognize the effects of a lack of sleep on workers. OSHA recommendations for what they call “extended or unusual shifts” also serves as a reminder that other OSHA labor regulations, such as those requiring routine breaks and meal allowances, are in effect for shift work.

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