It’s seven o’clock on a Tuesday night, and most families are finishing up their evening meal, getting ready to settle down for the evening.
This is not the case for Jack Skelcher, a Laborer for E.T. Simons Construction Company and a member of LIUNA Local Union 773 in Cairo, Illinois. His “day” is just beginning, as he prepares himself for a 10-12 hour shift of night work.
Coping with Night Work
“I’ll put it to you this way, this is something I would never volunteer for,” he says. “I miss quality time with my family, and I always seem to be trying to catch up on my rest.”
What makes matters worse is that Skelcher will be doing bridgework on a highly traveled state highway. A Laborer for the past 20 years, the last ten in road construction, he has seen his share of close calls. “Night work is a funny thing because you never know what you’re gonna get. It could be a quiet, smooth night, or all the nuts could be out on the highways,” meaning excessive speeding and erratic driving.
Regardless of the night, precautionary measures must be taken. Even with counter measures in place, however, there is no substitute for a well-rested, alert crew.
“I can only speak for myself, but getting used to new sleeping patterns takes a little bit of time,” says Skelcher. “Incentives are provided for night work – such as a differential pay scale and larger crews to fight fatigue – but the bottom line is night work is a hard way to make a living.”
A correlation has always been assumed between workplace injuries and night work, and recent studies confirm it (see Chart 1 at page bottom). This can be attributed to the physiological demands of night work that make it more hazardous than daytime jobs.
Circadian rhythms are natural cycles that control our body’s appetite, energy, mood, sleep and libido. One such rhythm is triggered by the morning light of a new day. Through sensors in our eyes, blue light cues the brain to produce cortisol, serotonin and other hormones and neurotransmitters that awaken us, get us moving and cause blood pressure to increase and body temperature to rise. At sunset, the body receives another of nature’s cues. As the sun goes down, the body produces and secretes the hormone melatonin, blood pressure drops and the body prepares for and eventually falls asleep.
Night work causes a circadian rhythm disruption, where a person’s internal body clock is at odds with the shift schedule. Yet, despite the lack of sleep, night workers often experience daytime insomnia.
Typically, night workers ask for quiet and pull down the shades, hoping daytime sleep will provide energy for the next night’s shift. More recently, sleep investigators have developed some medications and light therapies that can help (see sidebar).
Growing urban road congestion has turned road construction into a twenty four-hour operation. “When submitting a bid for a job, particularly road construction, the state mandates that night work be included in the bid process,” says Kyle Carson, Labor Coordinator and Field Safety Supervisor for E.T. Simons Construction. “Night work is a necessary evil, so the project can be finished within the time allotted. To guarantee this, time penalties can be assessed by the state if we deviate from our schedule.
“From a management perspective we provide safety classes, plenty of liquids and timely breaks to combat fatigue,” Carson continues. “My personal philosophy is to stop something before it happens. I feel the added responsibility when working at night, and I can see the stress in my employees. I have lobbied unsuccessfully against night work and have come to the realization that it is here to stay.”
“As night work becomes more and more prevalent, we must do all that we can to make the work safer,” says Walter Jones, Associate Director for the LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Division. “Contractors must ensure a police presence to help control speeding motorists. They also must make sure that traffic control devices are well-placed, properly maintained and clearly visible; that workers are provided retro-reflective, high visibility PPE; and that the work zone is a well-lit. The workforce must be trained about the hazards of night work. We must know what to expect from our immediate surroundings, as well as the inner workings of our own bodies.”
This chart, using unpublished data from the Texas Workers’ Compensation Commission for all industries, shows the hourly pattern of laceration and fracture injuries across the 24-hour period beginning at midnight. Data for falls evidences a similar pattern (Fortson, Kenneth N., The Diurnal Pattern of on-the-job Injuries, Monthly Labor Review (Sept, 2004)).