Saturday, December 01, 2007

Reported links betwen graveyard shifts and cancer: an issue for I.T. workers?


Last week major media sources discussed a World Health Organization Agency for Research on Cancer upcoming report linking higher incidences in cancer for persons who work the graveyard shift. The International Herald Tribune carried the story AP here: The title is “once dismissed as far-fetched, link between night shifts and cancer gaining acceptance.”

It’s likely that closer examination of results will finger irregular hours, common in information technology jobs where people have to work unusual hours when systems can be taken down from customers for maintenance (such as on Saturday night / Sunday morning) or when employees have to be on-call for nightly production cycles, common in financial institutions. Many of these cycles are largely run on the mainframe in batch (followed by replications or scripts to establish GUI interfaces for end-users), governed by scheduling software and with intricate schemes using generation data groups and backups to ease recovery from abends. Nevertheless, people have to be on call to respond to unexpected failures, especially after implementations or upgrades.

In shops where people are strictly responsible for their own systems, people develop techniques to minimize the chances of failure. In shops where the on-call rotation is widespread, there can be problems among staffers. Sometimes people without families are expected to do more of it. Left-wing rhetoric would claim that if the world needs to be open 24x7, everyone should “pay his dues” and do his fair share of it. But in recent years since Y2K, some companies have offshored production support work to India offshore.

Of course, operators in data centers are used to shift rotations, as most data centers are populated 24 x 7. Sometimes data centers are shut down briefly for major holidays.

Some contract programmer jobs require on-call availability. Some of these compensate the consultant hourly, so that on-call incidents (if valid) provide extra (usually straight time) income; others are salaried, and consultants might sometimes have to provide on-call on their own time, at least for their own systems.

The medical paper may attribute the incidence of cancer to the fact that when sleep patterns are interfered with, natural metabolism produces fewer anti-oxidants. Remedies may include regular lighting to simulate the natural effect of sunlight, and much longer times to acclimate to shift work.

Shift work is also essential in medicine. Long hours for interns and residents have long been controversial.

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