The Chemical Industries Association (CIA), the organisation which represents chemical and pharmaceutical businesses in the UK, has recently conducted a survey of shift patterns. The results of the survey give a fascinating insight into both the sheer variety of  different patterns of work across the chemicals sector, and the current state of industrial relations in this area.

Advantages from using shift work were reported, including long breaks built into the shift pattern being popular with staff, and rotation of hours giving a better work life balance.

Variety of different patterns

All of the firms  which responded to the survey run a variation of a 24 hour 7 days a week shift pattern, but some also had additional shift patterns on different parts of the plant. For example, 14% also had 5 day working, 9% had 24 hour 5 day shifts and 4% had 16 hour 5 day shifts a week.

For the 24 hour 7 day a week shifts,  18% worked regular 12 hour shifts, 4 shifts on 4 shifts off (42 hours per week over a 16 week cycle). All other responses were variations on this including e.g. 4 on 4 off for a 6 pattern cycle followed by 4 on and 18 off, 4 on 4 off, repeats for 7 cycles, then 14 days off over a ten week cycle; and  regular 2 on 2 off 12 hours (4 weeks day shift followed by 4 weeks nightshift)

Consultation

A relatively settled period of industrial relations in the industry is reflected by the fact that over 60% of respondents have not changed their shift pattern in the last 5 years.  Those which have changed have not reported any negative issues, as most reorganisations have been carried out in consultation with employees and recognised unions, and have generally resulted in a working pattern more valued by employees as a result. In addition, some companies continue to use the same shift pattern but reset the rota every few years to ensure fairness, so that the longer periods of leave falling at the end of a shift pattern rotate during the peak summer holiday season.

Covering Absence

As might be expected with modern plants running 24-7, the majority of firms responding to the survey continue to work over bank holiday periods, including Christmas, and this is rostered into shift patterns.  Only 9% shut down for Christmas and one company provides work on a voluntary basis paying a premium.

The bill for overtime pay to cover absence was the main disadvantage of the shift system reported by firms in the survey results. This highlights the importance of having terms built into contracts of employment allowing for flexibility, eg the ability to move employees from one shift or role to another to meet work demand, or to require a change in shift at short notice, to cover absence. Most respondents reported covering short term absence by paid overtime or voluntary shift swaps, however others supply cover by redeployment where they can change allocated roles and or shifts and operate safely. Other ways of dealing with cover include pre-banked hours, and overtime but not on increased rates, but with agreed payment through time off or normal shift pay.