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The trouble with staying awake: BCOPS study addresses shift work hazards

The cops who stay awake while the rest of us are sleeping need special support to maintain their physical and mental health


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Chronic fatigue and other ills brought about by irregular work schedules have always been a concern for law enforcement officers. Only relatively recently has there been any scientific analysis of the problem.

Some of that research was reviewed in a recent webinar, Stress and Cardiovascular Disease among First Responders, hosted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

The webinar featured several presenters who each broke down data gathered during a longitudinal study of police officers in Buffalo, NY. The Buffalo Cardio-Metabolic Occupational Police Stress (BCOPS) study followed hundreds of public safety officers between 2004 and 2020, tracking their work schedules and health over the course of the project.

The seminal work in this area was an unrelated research effort published over 20 years ago. Tired Cops by Bryan Vila (now a Ph.D. and professor of criminal justice at Washington State University) detailed some of the health hazards suffered by cops who worked irregular schedules. Some of the situations he studied were brought about by the cops themselves, who insisted on working second jobs or engaged in other pursuits when they should have been sleeping.

what are the health impacts of shift work?

John Violanti, Ph.D., was one of the webinar presenters. Participants in the study were examined periodically to track heart rates, waist and neck circumference, height and weight, abdominal height and blood pressure. Violanti noted that the BCOPS study was the first study of its type to include a significant number of women.

Researchers drew blood specimens to run lipid panels, which measure cholesterol, triglycerides and high- and low-density lipoproteins. Ultrasound studies of coronary arteries were performed to detect the early stages of heart disease, and DEXA analyses measured bone density, body fat, and lean mass. Participants’ saliva was also analyzed for the presence of cortisol, a hormone produced in greater quantity when the body is under stress.

Changes in the mental health of the study participants were less driven by shift work stresses than by other behavioral issues common to policing. These included a lack of organizational support for individual officers and the threat of physical risks.

Officers who worked mostly on the night shift showed an increased propensity for cardiovascular disease, impaired blood flow and metabolic syndrome. Women had greater resistance to the health hazards associated with night shift work but suffered more stress from internal organizational issues than a concern for the dangers of the street.

Strategies to address the harmful effects of shift work

Another presenter, James Burch, Ph.D., spoke on some of the strategies that are available to reduce the harmful effects of shift work.

He acknowledged that shift work was essential not only in public safety but also in medical, manufacturing, hospitality and other industries. Still, shift work is directly associated with chronic fatigue and increased accident and injury rates, resulting in hundreds of billions of dollars in losses each year.

Dr. Burch developed a testing instrument that screens for 22 symptoms related to adaptation to shift work, as greater adaptation means fewer undesirable effects. It was no great surprise that adequate sleep is a fundamental requirement of successful adaptation. Properly rested officers maintained better mental health and showed a reduced incidence of biomarkers associated with poor adaptation, such as leptin, insulin interleukin and tumor indicators.

The BCOPS studies detailed the problems associated with shift work in public safety. It gave rise to a subsequent initiative, Safety and Health Improvement Enhancing Law Enforcement Departments, or SHIELD, which includes recommendations for a better diet, physical activity, management of body weight, and reduction of stress, tobacco use and alcohol use. (See research article in full below.)

SHIELD also looks to build resilience to PTSD through imagery and skills training, education about psychological trauma, relaxation techniques and strategies to deal with the emotional challenges of trauma. Growing out of the SHIELD initiative, the New York State Police has implemented a free health benefit for its troopers that includes a van equipped with medical testing gear to bring the diagnostic process to the various NYSP posts throughout the state.

Shift work isn’t going away. The cops who stay awake while the rest of us are sleeping need special support to maintain their physical and mental health. Projects like BCOPS and SHIELD identify the hazards and suggest workable solutions.

NEXT: Trying times for law enforcement may call for alternate work schedules

SHIELD Study by epraetorian on Scribd

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia and Oregon. He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.