Unsung Night Heroes: Challenges & Triumphs of Night Shifts

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An examination of the night shift professions, that while sometimes underappreciated, are necessary for civilization, in its current form, to exist.

A city can be thought of as a machine. Each business, citizen, politician, and service all have a purpose. And while the glamorous and most prestigious elements often make the newspapers, the lubricants necessary to keep that machine from grinding to a halt seldom do. In fact, they tend to be the ones delivering those papers.

On this site, we tend to focus on the important jobs that take place when the sun goes down. We know the obvious examples of law enforcement, medical professionals, and firefighters, the men and women whose job enthralls us so much we watch fictional dramas based on them. In this installment, we are going to look at the ones that they will never make a movie about. And thank heaven for that…

Sanitation Worker / Wastewater Treatment Operators

Hey, What’s That Smell… Oh… It’s Me!

While you may be caught in a traffic jam on some idle Tuesday evening, not very far beneath you, an entirely different sort of commute is taking place. One that is as repugnant as it is necessary. Welcome to the world of modern sewers.

Spanning a city in an interconnected web, pipes of all manner of functions serve as the circulatory system of the modern metropolis. It brings fresh water in, while taking… Shall we say “used water” out. The modern sewer system is comprised of miles of these pipes, all of which are just begging for a reason to leak, clog, rupture, or just flat-out explode. That’s where the sanitation engineer comes in. Much to his or her chagrin, I’m sure.

In reality, sewage workers maintain the vital water supply to and from all residents, and this necessary work happens twenty-four hours a day. When others go home for the evening, these stalwart overseers make certain that constant access to fresh water for everyone from the power plant that needs steam to spin a turbine to a baby-sitter heating up a bottle in a double boiler, have that water on demand. 

When the inevitable happens, and a section of pipe that was installed in the Taft administration ruptures, these people spring to action. When water pipes rupture, the drop in pressure can lead to contamination of water by microbes and bacteria. Now, anyone who ever watched a zombie movie can tell you, mass amounts of contaminated folks is bad. They tend to get “bitey.”

Well, okay, mass cannibalism is probably not right around the corner, but dysentery, cholera, and all other manner of horrors are a possibility. 

So, while you relax at night, after a shower that likely didn’t give you herpes, you can thank these individuals. The stoic heroes who climb down into the darkness of a manhole and brave the alligators, giant rats, and the mole people. 

The ice in my glass of Scotch has never been more appreciated.

Power Generation Plant Operators

I’ve Got an Idea! Let’s Not Freeze in the Dark

Utilities necessary to maintain our relatively comfortable existence aren’t merely limited to water and waste removal. After all, how could we look at our grinning face of smug satisfaction without indoor lighting? Sure, you could wait until daylight hours or light a candle, but buggers to that. 

Whether natural gas, oil, coal, nuclear, or hydrodynamic, power plants also function on a constant timeline. There is no time off, well, certainly not intentionally. 

The consequences of a blackout range from inconvenient to fatal. So it goes without saying (but I will, I’m chatty) that diagnosing and fixing a blackout is a necessity. Luckily, there are teams of utility workers on call for just this occasion.

Many times, like when severe weather is expected, these individuals will be in designated areas just waiting for a problem to occur. When the weather is in the mood to not leave us quivering, cowardly lumps, huddled under our covers, these workers are simply on call. While not as universally celebrated as a surgeon or the like, utility workers on call are more likely to impact your day-to-day life than a medical professional. Unless you are horribly unlucky.

Maintaining your ability to not live like a medieval peasant, the utility worker’s role in society is as necessary as it is ubiquitous. Next time you’re driving around, you’d be surprised how many flashing yellow sirens you’re likely to see when you’re paying attention. They’re always watching. Always waiting.

That last part sounds chilling, I know, but it isn’t.

Grocery Store Workers

Who Needs Those Stinky Farmers, My Grocery Store Grows All the Food!

Now, believe it or not, it is not sorcery or spontaneous creation that puts the food on the shelves of your local store, it is, in fact, some kid in a vest. Probably wearing a nametag. Possibly with the wrong name.

Every night, when the lights go down and the parking lot empties, all the little grocery elves come out of hiding and go into the storage areas of your supermarket and replenish all the items taken that day. If you ever see these mythical creatures, don’t call them elves, they can be surprisingly surly if you do so.

It isn’t just stocking that these men and wone focus on, however. In point of fact, these stockers rotate products to keep spoilage to a minimum, remove questionable or expired produce, and ensure that new deliveries find shelf space in an already crowded environment. 

In some instances, items that need refrigeration may be removed at night, only to be replaced in the morning. This can occur with items you notice that are stored on ice. 

While many employees begin their careers in retail with this position, it is nevertheless an important cog in the machine that maintains a city’s food supply. Granted, sugar-coated cereal and chocolate pretzels may not qualify as “food,” but they are certainly necessary, my four-year-old nephew assures me. 

So, while insulting farmers may seem rewarding and fun, maybe don’t assail them with insults just yet. While the grocery store stockers are the unsung masters of stomach-grumbling avoidance, they only stock the produce, the don’t… Um… Produce the produce.

Street Sweepers

The Streets are Paved with… That ain’t Gold!

Before the advent of the automobile, the primary method of transportation was the horse. Sounds very “green” but I assure you it was “brown.” Turns out, horses aren’t exactly famous for using bathrooms. The problem became so apparent that at the time, there was a very real concern that the streets would be impassable due to the volume of horse apples (that’s not a fruit, don’t make a pie out of one.)

Now, luckily we have moved beyond that problem, but the streets still have a habit of collecting the unpleasant. Everything from food refuse, chewing gum, automotive debris, glass, and other delightful shrapnel that people produce tend to find their way to our streets. So, while we no longer have mountains of organic fertilizer being given to us by our equine friends, we still have to combat the filth that we produce ourselves. Most of which, I pray is not the same sort of byproduct…

Modern street sweepers tend to operate at night. This is due to the fact that the monstrous vehicles they pilot tend to be slower than date night with two shy people. The operators of these steel behemoths are in charge of the rigging and operation of the hoses and cleaners employed. 

They lumber, ponderously, through the avenues and alleyways of the towns, collecting the trash while sanitizing the surfaces. Well, within reason. Let’s be fair, there ain’t no sanitizing the streets after some of the parades we’ve all seen. 

They also alert the authorities involved in removing large animals that have expired on the streets (nobody wants to see Bambi blasted with a power washer and hit by spinning brushes. Well, some do. Stay away from those people.) With their job completed, the streets can be navigated with relative ease. While most people will never actually see them at their job, they will appreciate their existence nonetheless.

Unless they ever get caught in driving behind one, in which case the streets will be clean, but the language will be downright filthy.

I speak from experience.

Machines serve a function. The function of a city, at its heart, is to produce wealth, comfort, and survivability for its residents. A mayor may direct it, businesses do indeed fund it, and the army of civil servants protect it, but it is the unsung members of our community that ensure its survival. Most of the jobs I have described require no college degree, and seldom require a suit and tie.

The point of this article, however, is to illustrate that the mayor of the mightiest city would find themselves quite powerless if the water stopped flowing, the lights went dark, and the toilets stopped becoming receptacles and started giving back…

With this in mind, one can at least appreciate these careers if not consider joining their ranks. The pay is surprisingly well, the benefits tend to match, and let’s be honest, as long as people need to eat and expel food in a well-lit space, job security is all but guaranteed.

Next up, you may be interested to know the inner workings of what a gas station attendant does and whether or not you should take that night shift job.



Disclosure: This page may contain affiliate links, meaning we receive a commission if you decide to make a purchase through our links, but this is at no additional cost to you. Please read our disclosure and privacy statement for more info.

Daniel Smith

Managing a global sales team I've experienced the challenges of working at all hours of the day and night. Being a shift worker I know how tough it can be balancing everyday life when you feel like you haven't slept in weeks! Providing advice and tips on how to manage your schedule, whilst still staying healthy is where I can help.

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