Labor Shortages: Safety Steps for Short-Staffed Teams

November 1, 2022 • Previsor

If you’ve visited a store, restaurant, or needed any professional services this year, you’ve undoubtedly felt the effects of labor shortages. Lines and wait times are longer than ever. While this is frustrating for the average consumer, many employers are scrambling to meet demand. Employees are being asked to take on more responsibilities. With fewer experienced team members to train new hires, the risk of injury is on the rise.

On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we sit down with Aaron Paris. He is the Director of Safety at the Robert E. Miller Group. Paris has twelve years of experience in public safety. He has more than five years invested in workplace safety with the Miller Group, and helps clients resolve complex safety issues and put solutions in place.

First, we’ll talk about why labor shortages are more than an operational issue. Then, we’ll discuss changes that make a difference to a short-staffed team. Finally, we’ll share how employers can prepare themselves and their employees in an evolving economy.

Listen to this episode on the WorkSAFE Podcast, or read the show notes below.

Labor shortages: More than an operational issue

Labor shortages have caused service to slow down in nearly every sector. And while it’s inconvenient for customers, employers are facing difficult choices. “That it’s frustrating for the consumer is very true,” Paris began. “But as an employer, trying to get more employees has just become a very daunting task.” When employers can’t source new hires, shifts become longer. The workday changes, and not always in good ways.

Hypervigilance leads to mental fatigue

Longer shifts mean employees are using more mental energy. This results in increased burnout, reduced safety and worse performance. Paris sees these consequences hit some industries harder than others, especially those that require hypervigilance, or heightened mental awareness. For example, working at heights, with fast-moving machinery or in long-haul transportation requires hypervigilance.

Working in this state leads to increased heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. Without a substantial break, employees begin to wear down. “It just takes your body time to recover from that,” Paris explained, “Statistically, it’s somewhere between 20 to 60 minutes.” The longer the shift, the easier it is to become mentally and physically tired.

A never-ending cycle

Some roles now require employees to work overnight, or even for full 24-hour days. Working this way doesn’t just cause mental burnout; it causes physical burnout as well. Sleep patterns are interrupted. As a result, employees struggle to get enough rest. They skip family and leisure time to try and catch up on sleep.

But this can be a near-impossible cycle to break without intervention. “They’re going to be constantly on this terrible roller coaster of trying to get enough rest to go to work, come home, be completely exhausted and they’re never going to cycle out and get real rest,” Paris explained. 

Changes make a difference in labor shortages

Although many employees are on the tipping point of burnout, work continues to pile up. Employers with just a few employees rely on them to get the job done. As a result, longer hours aren’t just a short-term need anymore – they are the norm. It’s important for business owners to put measures in place to reduce burnout, especially when work must go on.

Regular break times

“Stress exposure is probably comparable to a heat exposure and cold exposure,” Paris explained. “If you can give a break for the employee to recoup from that exposure, they’re going to be able to be mentally and physically fit longer.” What does he suggest? Employees working extended shifts should have a break every 90 minutes. This break should be 5-10 minutes long. It gives them a chance to decompress mentally, and extends the time they can focus, when needed.

It can be easy to skip a break – even more so when the pressure is on to get a job done. However, those missed breaks take a toll. Paris recommends using different methods to ensure employees are getting time to rest, such as:

  • Smart devices. Apps and wearables, like smart watches, can be set to remind employees to take a pause.
  • A wall clock. Mark an analog clock to indicate break times. Set alarms or timers on digital clocks, so employees know how much time they have until the next break.
  • Supervisors and managers. Assign the responsibility to shift leaders to notify their teams.


It can be valuable for employees to learn different roles. Changing tasks reduces the risk of injury from repetitive movements. Further, it offers an employee’s brain a chance to stay active by doing something different. Employers also benefit. In the event an employee is unavailable, work doesn’t have to stop because no one else is trained to do the job. They have someone else who can step in. Cross-training creates more flexible teams.

Behavioral and mental health programs

Behavioral and mental health programs may seem like an extra expense to employers. But Paris suggests that employers compare it to the cost of a workplace incident. Time away from work, the impact on premium and medical expenses can soar due to a workplace incident. “Those premiums are going to go up and for every dollar they have to earn to pay for those increases of premiums, it’s really losses on their revenue,” Paris shared.

Older employees often see taking a breaks and accepting support as a weakness. But years of hard work without regular breaks and rest can take a physical toll. Influence from leaders can help change company culture. “Remind them ‘Hey, look, this is so that you can keep doing this for the next 20 to 30 years, because your ability to provide for your family is important,” Paris added. “‘You know, this break doesn’t seem like a big deal now. But I need you here tomorrow, and I need you here the next day. This is for you and for me.'”

Invest in preparing new employees

During a labor shortage, turnover often increases. It can be tempting for employers to rush new employees to work as soon as possible. However, a lack of support can encourage a new hire to leave even sooner.

We throw them out there,” Paris said. “We let them sink or swim. The likelihood of them getting injured, feeling frustrated, feeling unsupported, and then leaving is pretty high.” He points out that it’s always worth the time and effort to properly train them. “The priority is, how do we invest in new hires to make sure that they feel this is the place they want to stay?” This looks like:

  • Teaching job expectations. Don’t expect new hires to simply learn new roles on their own. Walk them through the responsibilities of their role.
  • Highlighting safety risks. What are the safety risks associated with a particular role? Show employees the hazards that come with certain processes, equipment or machines.
  • Using mentorship. Pair new employees with more experienced employees. They can show them what it looks like to work safely in practice.

Preparing for a changing economy

According to Paris, maintaining a solid workforce, even short-staffed one, will be vital for many businesses. The economy is changing every day. Well-trained employees lend stability to business, and a safe and supportive workplace lends value to the employees. “They have value in us, and we have value in them,” Paris said. “That becomes a collective – that we’re working together to increase each other in a lot of ways.”

Consistency helps prepare employees

I think consistency is always key to a company’s success. Being consistent in applying our safety procedures and policies across the board. Consistency in training, consistency in good hiring practices, consistency in return to work,” Paris shared. “If you are established in these components ,you’re going to perform better. I think that that’s going to allow the employees rise faster through their training and be prepared to meet the task that you’re hiring them for.”

Find your cheerleaders

According to Paris, it’s important to identify the employees who uplift your mission. They value safety, enjoy their work, and represent your company culture. For example, a shift leader, a project manager or a foreman can serve as an example to new employees.

“At the end of the day, one safety person can’t do all things,” Paris said. “One manager can’t do all things. But as a collective, we can be more successful.” Making them part of the onboarding process is an invaluable step that creates a stronger team. It’s easy to fall in to the convenience of screens, videos and apps. But for many new hires, having someone there to ask questions to and observe is a relief.

Culture is key

For Paris, culture is what is going to bring employees through the door and keep them there. But it’s important for employers to remember the sacrifice on the part of the employee. “Although we have anticipation that our employees will work longer hours, we want to make sure that our employees are feeling valued, and that they’re taken care of. Because we want them to be here in the future for us, and when this is all over.”

For free safety posters, sample policies, and safety toolkits, visit our Resource Library. Then, check out this WorkSAFE Podcast episode on carefully managing shifts to prevent overworking.

November 1, 2022
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