Legal Number of Hours a Nurse Can Work in a Shift

Some hospitals restrict the number of hours you can work without time off.
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If you're a typical nurse, you're ready to hand over your assignment and walk out the door by the time your shift's over. But callouts, delayed co-workers, a full house of patients and more pouring in the door might have you hanging up your coat and sticking around for a few hours -- or more -- to help out. Staying over is common in emergency situations, such as severe storms, where the next shift can't get into work. Each state sets its own regulations on how many hours nurses can work and whether a nurse can be forced to work overtime.

Typical Shifts

    Most nursing shifts are either eight or 12 hours long, but studies such as a University of Pennsylvania report published in the July 2004 issue of "Health Affairs" show that most nurses routinely work longer, either catching up on notes or covering for an absent or late co-worker. Nurses worked more than 12 hours 40 percent of the time, researchers reported, and worked longer than their scheduled shift 20 percent of the time. Around 14 percent said they had worked 16 hours or more in a single shift during the past four weeks, with the longest shift reported being 23 hours and 40 minutes. Some units mandate on-call time, which is not included in the total number of hours worked.

Mandatory Overtime

    It's 15 minutes after the end of your shift and your replacement hasn't shown up yet. You know what's coming when the phone rings -- the supervisor's voice telling you you've got to stay until they find a replacement for your replacement. Can you really be forced to stay and for how long? It depends on where you live. States make their own rules about mandatory overtime, a nice way to say you legally can't leave until your employer tells you it's OK. Sixteen states prohibited mandatory overtime in 2012, except during emergencies or disasters.

Voluntary Limits

    Your hospital or workplace can't force you to stay on the job for more than 12 hours or even after eight hours, but you can volunteer to stay. Most states impose no legal limits on how many hours you can work voluntarily, but a few, such as New York State and Massachusetts limit the hours to 16. Massachusetts laws also state that a nurse who works 12 hours must be given eight hours off before her next shift.


    Studies have shown that a tired nurse is often a dangerous nurse. In the University of Pennsylvania study, working longer hours significantly increases errors, including medication, procedural and charting errors. In the study,1.6 percent of shifts lasting up to 8.5 hours had errors reported, compared to 5 percent of shifts lasting 12.5 hours or more and 3.1 percent of shifts lasting between 8.5 and 12.5 hours.

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