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Night shift workers: The unsung heroes who see us through our darkest hours

By Ivan Little

Doing the night shift is all in a day's work for thousands of people in Northern Ireland. Yet most of the population rarely lose any sleep over what the night owls have to do to make sure that they can rest easy in their beds.

Everyone knows, of course, that hospitals, ambulances and the police service are, by their very nature, round-the-clock operations. But many people are still totally in the dark about others who are meeting the nocturnal needs of the province in the wee small hours of the morning.

Recent studies have shown that night shift workers are giving up more than their sleep to keep Northern Ireland ticking over.

Surveys have revealed that night work could cause long-term damage, with increased risks of health problems, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.

But for countless workers around the world, there's no alternative to the night shift as more and more industries, services and shops operate 24-hour schedules.

Now a new BBC Northern Ireland documentary hopes to open people's eyes to the realities of the night shift, shining a light, so to speak, on a range of people who work during the hours of darkness.

The Longest Night - part of the True North series, which recently sparked controversy in Larne over a programme about the town - was all shot on December 21 last year.

It truly was the longest night of the year in Northern Ireland, with the sun setting at 3.53pm and not rising until 8.04am.

The people featured in the programme - which is broadcast tonight - include a street cleaner and a women's shelter worker.

But it also focuses on turkey farmers, a man who specialises in taking night-time photographs and a woman who may just have one of the most stressful jobs of the lot - supervising a taxi control room at the height of the Christmas party rush in Belfast.

But none of the interviewees would have been able to fulfil any of their tasks without Martin Watson, one of the night shift men who keep the home fires - and everything else - burning in Northern Ireland.

He's filmed on his night shift at Kilroot Power Station, near Carrickfergus, which can generate two-thirds of all the power needed across the province.

Martin's own energy demands are met by a supply of sweets, which he brings in to share with his four colleagues, who are on duty with him in the massive complex, a tradition which started after he stopped smoking.

"I don't think most people give any thought about a power station," says Martin.

"Most people switch on a light switch. They think about us when the lights don't come on. But when the light comes on, I don't think they give us a second thought."

Powering up the province at Kilroot is a complex and complicated operation, but Martin has a happy knack of talking about the process in simple terms that make it easy for anyone to understand.

But he also puts his role in the power station into perspective.

"The difference, maybe, between this job that I'm in and other people's jobs is, if I make a mistake, half of Northern Ireland knows about it. You can't cover it up." During the night, Martin constantly monitors Kilroot's performance compared with other energy generators in Northern Ireland - gas power and wind power. One part of the routine he doesn't enjoy is checking on the transformer equipment in a locked room with terrifying looking - and sounding - apparatus, complete with 275,000 volts.

"This is where it leaves the station and goes out onto the main grid," says Martin, who adds: "It's probably the most frightening area of the power station, certainly from a physical point of view."

As he cautiously opens the door, he says, "As long as we are within our safety distance, we'll be fine."

But he warns that, if people were to get too close, their blood would boil and they'd be frazzled within a second.

Meanwhile, Roberta Sands and her team who man the phones at Fonacab's nerve-centre in Belfast are starting to overheat a little, showing the strain of trying to get thousands of revellers home on the busiest night of the year, a night when callers looking for a cab refuse to take no for an answer - even when all the taxis are booked. Fonacab's staff handle a remarkable 1,500 calls an hour after midnight and the cameras also follow a driver at the sharp end of the operation, on the hectic streets where drunken young people regularly stand in front of his taxi trying to get in after chucking-out time at the city's pubs.

Roberta, a cancer sufferer, reveals she prefers working late shifts, and she applied to work five nights over the holiday period, including New Year's Eve, because otherwise, "I would only be in the house on my own". But not everyone has a home to call their own. And, in west Belfast, the cameras strive to capture the all-too-real picture of homelessness.

For the first part of the night, the Welcome Centre opens its doors to help people who have nowhere else to go.

Staff feed a number of homeless men. One of them, a well-known figure outside Belfast theatres and entertainment centres, talks of the struggle to survive on a day-to-day and a night-to-night basis.

Some of the men sleep during the day and try to keep on the move at night, because they reckon Belfast is a safer place after dark.

The story is not the same for women and, across the street from the Welcome Centre there's an emergency overnight shelter for up to five vulnerable homeless girls, some of whom are problem drinkers.

Officials say it takes special people to run the shelter, from 9.30pm every night to 8.30am the next day.

Alice Hackett fits that bill perfectly.

She freely admits that she used to be a drinker herself and, like a surrogate mother, Alice fusses and frets over her charges and only relaxes when they're in the door, ready for their beds.

But on the longest night of the year, the non-appearance of one of the girls makes it seem like an even longer night for Alice.

She contacts charity staff, who set off in a van in search of the missing girl, hunting for her in several areas favoured by street drinkers.

In Londonderry, Kieran Dunne is left in the early hours to deal with the hangovers from the night before - the physical hangovers.

For Kieran is a council street cleaner, who springs into action with his trusty brush in the city centre as soon as thousands of drinkers head home, leaving cans, bottles, fast-food containers - and worse besides - in a sorry mess.

Yet teetotaller Kieran, who always says a prayer before going on duty, has no qualms about tackling the Christmas detritus over a split shift which finishes late at night and restarts a few hours later.

"It keeps me in a job," says Kieran, who adds that he once found a three-figure sum of money on the streets.

He and a colleague gave the cash to charity and he reckons that shortly afterwards he got his reward after three of his bets came up in the bookies.

The festive season might mean several hours overtime for Kieran in Derry, but for brothers John and Thomas Galloway in Randalstown, Christmas is a virtual sleepless marathon.

For they are turkey farmers who work around, and against, the clock to guarantee that the huge demand for their birds - around 5% of the total market in Northern Ireland - is met. "It's going to be a long night," says John.

"I think we are running on three hours deep sleep.

"But at four o'clock on Christmas Eve I can lay in bed as long as I want."

But, while most people who work the late turn do so because of necessity, Martin McKenna from Maghera is often up all night by choice.

He's a photographer who believes the night time is the right time for getting the best shots of nature in Northern Ireland in all its power and its glory.

The documentary follows him as he pursues a lead from the weather forecasters, who are predicting that there'll be a spectacular lightning storm on the North Coast.

His travels take him to the harbour at Ballintoy, Dunluce Castle and Downhill beach, where he waits patiently for crashing waves and a flash of lightning which will make his picture and hopefully make him money.

"I love the hunt to catch something on camera like lightning, anything that's transient, it's not there all the time, it just suddenly happens.

"If I get one good shot tonight, I'm happy."

The programme also features interviews with Martin's mother and girlfriend who admit they worry about him when he's out all night on his own.

On the longest night, it looks like their fears could be realised as Martin's car refuses to start after his battery runs flat on a beach where his mobile phone has no service.

The documentary does answer the questions about whether or not Martin gets back on the road, or indeed manages to capture the storm pictures he's been chasing, But, suffice to say, there won't be any spoilers here.

  • True North: The Longest Night, BBC One, tonight, 10.35pm

Downsides of being a night owl...

  • Working the night shift can cause long-term health problems and throw the body into chaos, according to research carried out earlier this year.
  • Scientists at the Sleep Research Centre in Surrey have discovered that shift work disrupts the body at the deepest molecular level and has been linked to higher rates of Type 2 diabetes, heart attacks and cancer.
  • Experts said the scale, speed and severity of damage caused by being awake at night was a surprise.
  • The human body has its own body clock which is tuned to sleep at night and be active during the day.
  • This natural rhythm has profound effects on the body, changing everything from hormones and body temperature to mood, athletic ability and brain function.
  • The study, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, followed 22 people as their bodies were shifted from a normal pattern to that of a nightshift worker.
  • When the volunteers began to work through the night, the fine-tuning that allowed 6% of genes to be more or less active at specific times of the day was lost.
  • More than 97% of rhythmic genes became out of sync with mistimed sleep, explaining why people feel bad during jetlag, or when they have to work irregular shifts.
  • Research also showed that shift workers get too little sleep at the wrong time of day, which may increase their risk of Type 2 diabetes and obesity.
  • Others studies show heart attacks are more common in night workers.

Belfast Telegraph


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