Monday, May 29, 2000

'Body clocks' cause alarm

Safety depends on keeping even keel amid odd hours

By Andrea Kay
Enquirer contributor

        If you are the one of five Americans who toils at a full-time job outside traditional daytime work hours, you need to pay special attention to your habits on and off the job. It could be a matter of life and death — yours and everybody around you.

        Human beings function much better in the daytime than at night, say Michael Smolensky and Lynne Lamberg, authors of The Body Clock (Henry Holt). And yet our increasingly 24-hour society is causing more and more of us to work at all hours of the day and night, putting ourselves and others at risk.

        We're not just talking about the stereotypical shift worker. People who work odd hours include actors, musicians, morning TV and radio news anchors, computer types who work past midnight, physicians on call, diplomats negotiating treaties at all hours, stockbrokers and executives dealing with clients around the world.

        Even if you've slept reasonably well the day before, you won't be any more alert between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. than someone who had only four hours sleep for two nights in a row, according to studies cited in Wake-up America, a National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research report.

        “At the low point of the day, and after missing some sleep, people fail to see things they seldom overlook when fully alert,” the authors say.

        In fact, they suggest, sleep loss may have contributed to some of the past century's most grievous industrial catastrophes. Researchers at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Australia point out that the crisis at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979 started between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. when workers didn't notice that an important valve was stuck. The workers involved had rotated that day from the day shift to night shift.

        The Exxon Valdez catastrophe causing the spill of 11 million gallons of crude oil, took place at 12:04 a.m. It's estimated that the third mate, the person in charge at the time, got less than five hours of sleep the night before. When the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger took place, killing seven aboard, some key managers had less than two hours of sleep the night before the launch and had been on duty since 1 a.m.

        Even if working off-hours is not your usual habit, but you sometimes stay up late or get up early, travel frequently or miss sleep for any reason, you will be less alert. And if you are driving to and from your destination, you create an additional risk. Safety experts regard fatigue as the most common cause of fatal highway crashes, more common even than alcohol.

        If you work outside of daytime hours, here are some tips to foster better performance and health on and off the job:

        • Do your most boring tasks early and the most interesting ones toward the end of your shift. Stand up and stretch frequently. Try a few minutes of vigorous exercise, talk to co-workers and schedule breaks for your foggiest times.

        • Take naps on breaks. Even a 10-minute nap will make you more alert.

        • Take it easy on caffeine. You need only two cups of regular coffee or two cans of caffeinated soda at the start of a night shift to boost alertness throughout the entire shift, say researchers.

        • Don't smoke at bedtime. Nicotine, a stimulant, disrupts sleep.

        • Plan what you eat. Don't snack on fatty foods. Instead nibble fruits and vegetables.

        The cost of mistakes by sleepy U.S. workers including lost production, missed days from work and medical expenses, exceeds $100 billion annually. As consumers demand goods and services at all hours, more businesses will require non-stop operations. Expect the demand for your services to increase and be prepared to give your body what it needs to be effective and safe in order to deliver.

        Career consultant Andrea Kay is the author of Greener Pastures: How To Find a Job In Another Place, Interview Strategies That Will Get You the Job You Want and Resumes That Will Get You the Job You Want. Send questions to her at P.O. Box 6834, Cincinnati, OH 45206; fax: (859) 781-2228. E-mail:


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