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Is there a maximum number of hours a nurse can work in a 24-hour period?

Friday January 30, 2009
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Dear Nancy,

I am an independent nurse consultant for long-term care corporations. I travel to several states (compact license) and sit as the interim director of nursing while these corporations search for a permanent director of nursing. Many facilities are routinely scheduling back-to-back 16-hour shifts (permanent schedules) for their licensed LPNs and RNs. This practice leads to most of these nurses working 16.5 or greater hours and then returning for another 16.5 shift with less than 8 hours between shifts. Is there a maximum number of hours a nurse can work in a 24-hour period? If so, where would I find this information for each state? I don't feel this is a safe practice for any nurse.


Nancy Brent replies:

Dear Belinda,

The resources you will need to evaluate the time worked by the nurses in the states you serve as interim director of nursing will be located on the state level. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA) does not limit the number of hours an employee can work in any work week if the employee is 16 years of age or older.

Checking with the respective states’ Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division will allow you to determine what limits, if any, exist for employees working a specific number of hours and any “time off” requirements between work shifts in a given period. This information may be readily available on the states’ Department of Labor Web sites.

Another important source of information would be to determine if the respective states have passed any prohibition on mandatory overtime. Depending on the specifics of the hours worked, it may be that the current schedule(s) violate a state’s mandatory overtime work prohibitions. These laws may also be available on the Internet; but if they’re not, a consultation with a nurse attorney or attorney in each state may be helpful in identifying the existence of these laws.

A third resource would be any scientific data concerning hours worked and their effect on the worker in terms of fatigue, judgment, and so forth. An excellent place to start is The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Web site <http://www.cdc.gov/NIOSH>. On the home page, click on the Safety & Prevention tab, then scroll down the list to the Work Schedules option. Clicking on that option will yield a wealth of information on this topic.


Nancy J. Brent, RN, MS, JD, is an attorney in private practice in Wilmette, Ill. This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as legal or any other advice. The reader is encouraged to seek the advice of an attorney or other professional when an opinion is needed.