New York is the city that never sleeps. But this renowned insomnia would not be possible without the more than 200,000 men and women who work the nightshift – the fry cooks and coffee jockeys, train conductors and cab hacks, cops, docs, and fishmongers selling cod by the crate. Inverting the natural rhythm of life, they keep the city running as it slows but never stops.

In our book, NIGHTSHIFT NYC, we tell the stories of New York City nightshift workers. This ethnography of the night investigates familiar sites, such as diners, delis and taxis, as well as some unexpected corners of the night, such as a walking tour of homelessness in Manhattan and a fishing boat out of Brooklyn. We show how the nightshift is more than simply out of phase, it is another social space altogether, highly structured, inherently subversive, and shot through with inequalities of power. NIGHTSHIFT NYC presents the narratives of those who sleep too little and work too much, revealing the soul of a city hidden in the graveyard shift of 24-hour commerce when the sun goes down and the lights come up.

But there is more to the story than found its way into the pages of the book. Here you'll find more stories of the night in New York City and around the country. And we hope you will add your own stories and comments in the months to come. Stay tuned and check back often...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Cancer Compensation

Last week, the BBC reported that Denmark is paying workers’ compensation to about 40 women nightshift workers who’ve developed breast cancer. It follows a ruling by the World Health Organization’s cancer arm that lists nightshift work as a probable carcinogen.

Since then, there’s been a firestorm of concern, comments, blog posts, and articles. They all basically say the same thing; if not precisely the same thing (many sites have simply repurposed the BBC story). In the UK, there are original articles from The Guardian, The Telegraph, New Scientist, and The Scotsman. Real rather than recycled reporting has been rare in the US, but a story has been filed from CNN. In Canada, there’s this story from The Globe and Mail. In Australia, this from ABC. And in New Zealand, this from Radio New Zealand.

While it’s great that this topic has gone viral, and that workers receive compensation, it’s not time to quit your nightshift job.

First, most of what’s been written in the past week focuses on the lack of melatonin, and increased estrogen, resulting from working the nightshift, but that’s not the whole story. If you’ve been following the posts here on this blog, you already know that it’s a more complicated story about circadian cycles and there are ways to mitigate the harmful effects. If you’re new to this blog, check out The Body’s Clock, The Daysimeter, Watch Out, and Nightshift Chicago.

Second, the World Health Organization’s cancer arm, aka The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), listed the nightshift as a probable carcinogen in 2007. That ruling followed years of research claiming that there was a cancer link, and other research claiming that there wasn’t. This does not negate its importance as a risk factor for cancer, but shows that research remains inconclusive.

Third, Denmark’s National Board of Industrial Injuries, the government agency awarding claims, only awarded 38 out of 75 submitted claims. That’s only half. So while it’s supremely laudable that they’re paying claims, it’s important to keep calm and remember that half the women who submitted claims were not awarded compensation. In fact, their 2007 annual report states that “there is only limited scientific documentation of a correlation.” The British Medical Journal reminded readers that the nightshift + women does not necessarily = cancer. “Women in Denmark who developed breast cancer after many years of working night shifts have received compensation despite only limited research supporting the link,” they wrote. Perhaps the most balanced story, comes from Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor at The Guardian.

Fourth, the IARC has yet to issue a full report on the subject; until then, don’t quit your night job.

Finally, for Nightshift NYC, we interviewed over 100 nightshift workers, always asking them detailed questions about their health. We’d read all the research, and continue to read it. To be sure, there are health effects (as well as errors, injuries and accidents), but most people we interviewed said the benefits outweighed the risks.

Nightshift workers shouldn’t quit their jobs or sue their employers, but they should be paid a night differential and allowed flexible scheduling; they should have a workplace with appropriate lighting, perhaps even a nap room and time to nap; and, if they have a family history of breast cancer, other health issues, or if they’re pregnant, a dayshift.

What’s your take on the subject? Best response gets a free copy of the book.

(NB: Thanks to Megan Feenstra Wall, Derek Steele, Laura Piquado, & Shannon Haragan for sending some of these links.)