Although it's reportedly unhealthy, 20 million Americans work nights

December 31, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

It was 3 a.m. and Milton Hay barely had a moment to chat.

While the rest of the world slept peacefully and dreamed sweetly or so it seemed -- Mr. Hay was churning out photocopies at Kinko's in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. He does that all night long, Fridays through Mondays.

He was hardly the only one awake. Milton Hay is just one of 20 million nightworkers in the United States -- almost 20 percent of the full-time work force. They not only police our streets, tend our sick and keep our electricity humming, they also transport our goods, monitor our money, entertain us on TV and will sell us a dozen eggs.

Everything seems to be moving to 24-hours, from the 7-Eleven convenience stores to massage parlors.

Not even clerical workers go home at 5 p.m. any more. In many cities, support staff at large firms work well into the night.

Economists predict the number of people who work "non-standard" work schedules will continue to grow as computers, telecommunications and other advances in technology link the globe's time zones.

Never mind that night work is bad for your health. If researchers prove correct, workers like Milton Hay have an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and gastrointestinal problems. Women may have more reproductive problems and babies with low birth weight (not to mention the difficulty of getting pregnant in the first place if a woman and her partner work different shifts).

Sleep clinics, staffed by yet another group of night workers, have found even those who have worked nights for years may never get used to it. Their body clocks can't adjust.

Just ask journalist Kevin Coyne. Intrigued by an odd statistic he came across -- that at 3 a.m. on any given night, 10 million people in this country were awake -- he decided to look into it.

He focused his research on those who "had" to be awake because they were working, and the result is the recently published Random House book, "A Day in the Night of America." Neither a business text nor a sociological treatise, it is the equivalent of an armchair traveler's look at a time many of us never see.

Not a night owl by nature, Mr. Coyne spent five grueling months with night-side Americans, asking what they did and how they felt about it. He started with herring fisherman off the coast of Massachusetts and continued with a security guard at Graceland in Memphis, a border patrol guard in Texas, a freeway repair crew in Los Angeles.

Hepped up on Coca-Cola and Hershey bars, he visited New York, where a clutch of all-night currency traders were waging a turf battle with the dusk-to-dawn cleaning crew. And Las Vegas, which he dubbed "the capital of the American night," where even the wedding chapels never close. And a Utah mountain where Trappist monks pray at night, believing that is when "God hears them best."

Most daysiders are unaware of the extent of nightwork. "If I tell people I work nights, they assume I'm a nurse," a bank employee in Boston told Mr. Coyne. Passing the city's big office buildings at night, "they think someone just left the lights on."

Business sees the night as a natural resource -- the "only" one we can't deplete. Tapping the wee hours has spawned a new industry -- overnight mail -- and altered the financial world.

It makes economic sense for a business with expensive equipment to expand operating hours, says David Crawford, a labor economist and teacher at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Why shell out for the equipment, then let it sit idle for two-thirds of the day?

Just look at Kinko's, where for the price of one operator you can keep a bank of machines whirring all night.

But the workers are tired. Night workers lose, on average, a full night's worth of sleep every week.

Milton Hay, who has a full-time day job as well, says he sleeps only three hours out of every 24 -- from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.

As a group, night workers use more caffeine and other stimulants, drink more alcohol, take more sleeping pills. Everything is magnified if you work a changing shift.

Marty Klein, a psychologist who runs SynchroTech, a Lincoln, Neb., shift-work consulting firm, says his surveys have shown more than 70 percent of nightworkers admit they fall asleep on the job every night.

Mr. Klein calls the naps -- often inadvertent -- "micro-sleeps" of 30 seconds to 5 minutes. They are especially prevalent among workers who monitor processes via computer.

Which brings up the issues of job performance and safety. If a trucker zipping along at 60 mph or a nuclear power plant operator goes asleep for even a minute, the results can be deadly.

Yet nightwork remains largely unstudied. A recent report on shift work by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment focused to a large extent on what is not known: We have learned more about biological rhythms, but we haven't applied it to the workplace. There's been insufficient data about who is working what hours. There has been no comprehensive safety study.

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