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Overtime safety risks

A new audit from Washington’s King County sheds light on the adverse non-monetary impact of too much overtime.

The audit looks at Sheriff’s Office overtime, concluding that both safety and performance can be compromised when individual officers work too many hours.  According to the audit, while overtime may be less expensive than hiring more officers, it can have “negative impacts on officer health, policing performance and community safety.”

We wrote a bit about the overtime safety issue in a Governing column in May, 2016,  “Overtime: The Good, the Bad and the Unsafe.” But the information we found on the safety impact of excessive overtime was largely anecdotal. This recent audit includes data analysis that dramatically highlights safety and performance problems.  Auditors found that fatigue increased accident risk, impaired decision making and adversely affected hand-eye coordination. It also contributed to health problems.

The chart above was created by the King County Auditor’s Office, based on a PeopleSoft analysis of King County Sheriff Officer hours, as well as additional information about off-duty hours worked during the 2014-2016 period. While it shows the risk of adverse events is still low, the chance of problems goes up as more overtime is worked. Four hours of additional overtime in a week increases the chance of “negative incidents,” including accidents, ethics violations, use of force or professional complaints by 12 percent, according to the audit.

One of the problems in King County is that overtime is not distributed evenly. As is common generally,  some employees choose to work far more overtime than others. The audit makes a strong case that  disproportionate levels of overtime increase departmental risk.  Sheriff Department officers who work an average of  18 hours of overtime are 25 percent more likely to have “negative performance incidents” than those who work 10 hours of overtime per week.  For those especially high overtime users (about 1 percent of officers)  the chance of safety incidents goes up 17 percent.

The King County audit makes a number of recommendations to improve the situation. It advises instituting limits on overtime, similar to those in other jurisdictions such as Los Angeles County. It also suggests that scheduling changes and the development of new staffing models could help reduce the need for overtime.

One other recommendation focuses on off-duty private security work by sheriff’s office employees. While the audit cites several other entities that track off-duty hours worked, the King County Sheriff’s Office does not currently do this. Since off-duty hours of work can also contribute to fatigue, the audit recommends putting in place a system that monitors total hours of work, not just work for the county.


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