Mary Dejevsky: The 12-hour shifts that imperil lives


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Hertfordshire Coroner's Court last week heard the sad story of Lorna Lambden, a 27-year-old paramedic with the London Ambulance Service, who died in December after taking anti-depressants. The inquest heard that she had bought the pills over the internet, and her death prompted warnings about the risks of buying medicines online. Dr Laurence Buckman, chairman of the British Medical Association's GP committee, said: "You should always get your drugs on prescription and go to a pharmacist, who will tell you about the side effects and correct dose."

That little lesson from the GPs, however, eclipsed another, perhaps more controversial, lesson that might have been drawn. The reason why Ms Lambden had been buying anti-depressants was, according to her family, to help her cope with her long hours at the London Ambulance Service. She worked 12-hour shifts and she used the drugs not to fend off depression, but to help her sleep.

Now no one denies that shift work can be demanding and that a combination of day and night shifts plays havoc with sleeping patterns. I did my bit in a 24-hour newsroom and can attest to that. But 12-hour shifts? On the trot?

A little research shows that 12-hour shifts are becoming more and more common in places where shift working is required. And they are not without controversy. The death of a young man after a car accident earlier this year was blamed in part on the failure of a call-centre employee, in the last half-hour of a 12-hour shift, to alert the fire service. Life-saving cutting equipment never arrived. You can read blog posts from nurses and others admitting to fatigue, errors and short temper as the shift wears on, and you might ask yourself whether the rise in complaints about poor, even callous, nursing has something to do with new shift patterns.

You might also ask yourself what the trade unions or the EU Working Time Directive might have to say about 12-hour shifts and their effect on those who are required to work them. The answer here is nothing. While those operating heavy equipment or professional drivers (remember all the rows about the tachograph "spy in the cab"?) are limited to nine hours a day with prescribed rest breaks, that's as far as it goes. For other workers, maximum hours relate to the working week, not the shift.

And the reason why there has been no outcry is that 12-hour shifts suit a lot of people. They suit employers, who believe they save money and simplify rostering. They suit parents, who can earn a full-time salary by working just three days a week, saving travel and childcare costs. And they suit those wanting more leisure. On one police website, someone asks whether it is really true that if you work 12-hour shifts you get an extra 90 days off a year compared with those on shorter shifts. Indeed you do, comes the answer; it's fantastic.

I'm sure it is. And for those, too, who fancy a second job, or some moonlighting. The only people, it seems to me, who do not benefit are all those of us who depend on services that are increasingly staffed by individuals who are exhausted, irritable and error-prone, just counting the hours until their 12 are up.

It's decidedly not the royal wedding

Maybe Ed and Justine hoped their nuptials would fly undetected below the radar of the royal wedding. Alas, they reckoned without the crusading zeal of the very-married Prime Minister, who decided to kick off the week by giving his favourite institution an extra push. He described it on Monday as the "bedrock of strong communities", and strong families as the "foundation of a bigger, stronger society". Meanwhile, Ed Miliband, who has never shared Mr Cameron's marriage-evangelism, gave a separate speech, insisting that unmarried relationships were not necessarily less stable than married ones. The trouble is that, in sticking to his politically-correct position on equality of relationships, Ed did nothing to dispel criticism that joining the married estate is a cynical career move. Now if only they had arranged to marry abroad, the ash cloud might have saved them. As it is, I'll wish them well for Friday, and hope Mr Cameron resists using the pictures to advertise the virtues of his Big Society.

Is there really no audience for documentaries?

After the Bafta awards on Sunday, there were muted complaints that light, fluffy and populist had won out against solid and traditional. If that's true – and I tend to regard the Baftas as yet another excuse for tedious mutual back-slapping within a closed club – then the TV companies, including the giant BBC, have only themselves to blame. To a channel, they have conspired to designate Monday mid-evening the weekly "graveyard" slot, suitable only for "burying" documentaries. By scheduling them against each other, they reduce the audiences further, then use the viewing figures as a pretext for not spending more money on factual programming.

This past Monday, BBC1 had (the sadly diminished) Panorama on Fifa at 8.30pm, followed by Supersize Ambulance. Also at 9pm, BBC2 had Adam Curtis's latest documentary offering, while ITV had Strangeways, and Channel 4 had The Truth About Your Dentist. Yes, I know the BBC has the i-Player, Channel 4 has 4+1, and everyone but us has a VCR. But there is only so much time-shifting anyone wants or remembers to do.

While I'm on the subject, why on earth is BBC Question Time still scheduled against Newsnight? Either bring forward Question Time to 9pm, before the news, or make it part of Thursday's Newsnight. The present situation is endlessly frustrating for politically-minded viewers trying to figure out which they fancy, and – in terms of viewing figures – utter madness.

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