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Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Bhopal. Three significant industrial disasters caused, at least in part, by human error. Do you know what they had in common? All three occurred between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m. Coincidentally, this is the lowest point of alertness during the day. If you work between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., studies show that your alertness decreases and, as a result, you make more errors. With this comes an increased likelihood of accidents and injuries. Two thirds of all transportation accidents involving hazardous materials occur between 6 p.m. and 9 am. on a straight road, and under good driving conditions. In Japan, a study of locomotive operators found that 82% of near accidents occurred between midnight and 8 a.m.
Humans are predominantly day animals. We are controlled by an internal "body clock" that controls hormone release, blood pressure and body temperatures. These, in turn, tell us when it is time to sleep. If you work a swing shift, for at least part of your shift, you are probably fighting off your body's natural instinct to fall asleep. If you work a graveyard shift, you are most certainly fighting your body to stay awake. It is hard to permanently adjust to these unusual hours. Once they no longer need to be worked, your body will revert to its more natural sleep/awake cycle. You know it is tough. But you can adjust, and here's how!
Establish a bedtime routine. You will need your family's help in keeping the noise down and the darkness needed to fall asleep. Ear plugs or droning fans will help block the noise. Good heavy curtains, shades or eye patches can help provide the darkness. On days off, get 3 to 4 hours of sleep that overlaps the time you sleep during the work days. Do not rely on afternoon naps. You need a good seven hours of uninterrupted sleep. Do not rely on pills. They can cause dependence.
Avoid caffeine within five hours of bedtime. Also, avoid alcohol. Alcohol can make you sleep lighter and less restful. Shift workers tend to sleep 2 to 3 hours less than others as it is. A word of caution: Minimal amounts of alcohol and minimal amounts of sleep add up to a major deterioration in performance. Someone sleeping 5 hours a night and drinking only one can of beer is as impaired as someone who drinks 6 cans after a full night's sleep.
Eat nutritious foods. Avoid fried food and those that are hard to digest. Take a regular lunch period and avoid sugary snacks. One study has found that shift workers have higher blood cholesterol levels even if they eat the same as day workers. If this is the case, you may have to work harder to maintain health and fitness.