Rotating Shifts Make Sleep — And Life — Tough for Factory Workers

By Stacey McKenna

Four years after leaving his job at a paper converting center in the Cleveland area, 39-year-old Shane Keefer still struggles with . His wife is “just surprised how much I can sleep,” he says. “It’s almost like I’ve been sleep deprived for so many years that I’m still catching up.”

Though U.S. companies sent eight million jobs abroad between 1979 and 2009, as of last May, 12.3 million Americans still worked in manufacturing. While some positions promise decent pay and ample days off, many require covering multiple rotating shifts. This constant change in turn reeks havoc on employees’ sleep and overall quality of life.

From his mid-20s into his mid-30s, Keefer spent his work-days cutting five-ton rolls of paper to standard printing sizes. His schedule switched every two weeks, alternating between daytime, afternoon and midnight shifts. “We rotated through all the shifts and then did them backwards,” he explains. “Midnights to afternoons to days, so it was really bad. . . . days to midnights you would have an extra short weekend and the timing change throws you out of whack.”

The inconsistent hours kept Keefer from getting quality sleep and interfered with his personal life. The worst of it? “Short weekends,” he says. “Say when I was on afternoons, I’d come home from work… and I commuted too — it was an hour drive each way for me, so I was still wound up… I’d watch TV. I’d be going to bed around the same time Steph [my wife] was getting up for work. And midnights were the same way. I’d try to stay up in the morning some days. You just couldn’t get a solid routine down.”

To adapt, Keefer sometimes had to forego rest altogether, which led to problems of its own. “There were times when I would push the limits, like on midnights, I’d do all my yard work during the day, or the neighbors would keep me up playing basketball,” he says. “There were times I fell asleep at all the wheel. There were times when I was so exhausted because I was getting small chunks of sleep. When I worked there, it seemed like I was always tired. It felt like I had no ambition.” In addition, Keefer says his work suffered and he was more forgetful.

Despite the struggles, he kept at it, chugging coffee and even taking (legal) stimulants to stay alert. “The big thing that we did, they had those stackers, they’re banned now, but they had ephedra in them and everybody would take turns buying one bottle,” he says. And it worked, at least for a while. Four weeks of paid vacation and a decent wage kept Keefer in the job for a decade. But, he says, “I was always lookin’, trying to find a job that paid close.” Switching careers seemed unfeasible until the sleep deficit and social challenges began to outweigh the positives. “I didn’t care what the pay was gonna drop to,” Keefer explains. “I just had to get out of it.”

Tags:  Factory shift worker series Sleep Sleep & Work

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