When others go home to bed

The Duisburg-Nord steel plant never sleeps. The plant remains in operation even at night. These employees keep the line moving during the night shift.

The cloudy sky over the factory grounds at thyssenkrupp Steel in northern Duisburg is lit bright as day. It’s easy to recognize from the surrounding districts. Slag that is set out to cool flares up regularly, the stream of traffic at the gates and on the Rhine never seems to end, and ever-present clouds of steam drift past the towering silhouettes of the factory buildings. One thing is perfectly clear: Work goes on here day and night. The factory never rests for a moment. But who is actually working here? Who are the approximately 1,200 people who control production while everyone else is sleeping? Do workers on the night shift perform the same jobs as day workers? Seven employees describe what it’s like to work at night, and how doing the night shift affects their private lives.

Mehmet Kamcili, 49
Hot Strip Mill 1

Back in the old days, the night shift used to last seven days, like all the other shifts. And it felt endless. Since I transferred from Dortmund to Duisburg in 2001 and have to drive back to Dortmund, I’m much happier with the continuous shift: two early shifts, two late ones, and two night shifts, followed by four days off. Night shifts are hard when my wife and I are invited somewhere and have to decline. Despite the routine, we need to be vigilant at night to make sure nothing breaks down. If the furnace isn’t up and running, the slabs won’t come out. Then I have to regulate the temperature to make sure that the slabs don’t overheat and become unusable.

Marcel Wollny, 34
Schwelgern Blast Furnace

Ever since finishing my apprenticeship as a process mechanic 14 years ago, I’ve been on a rotating shift. And since I became a father two and a half years ago, I’ve preferred the night shift, because there’s less going on at home then. As a young man, getting up in time for the early shift was hard, but today it’s the best time. The night shift is challenging. Either we get down to business because the equipment is down and we have to get our hands dirty, or my attention is focused on the screens in the control center, because everything is running smoothly and on schedule. Then the need for sleep makes itself felt, but we help each other out when that happens. When I’m on my way back home, the others are making their way to work. And I’m looking forward to getting home. Shift work makes for a pleasant family life, thanks to the income and the large amount of free time, which I’m able to spend at home. And my wife is fully supportive of the changing work schedule.

Sandra Lindner, 33
Ox1 Laboratory

After my apprenticeship, I started working a day shift at the laboratory. Then in 2009 I switched to the rotating shift. I gave it a lot of thought at the time, because of how it would affect my private life. Now I would never want to go back to a regular day shift. Granted, it’s often hard when you realize that everyone else on the street is on their way home from work and will soon be making themselves comfortable. But that’s only the last two days of work; we can get through them. Once I’m in the lab, I enjoy doing my job and working with my colleagues. Since there’s less business at night, we handle different jobs than we do during the day. For example, we mix chemical solutions, prepare device tests, and perform additional maintenance tasks. The fact that I’m often home during the day has some major advantages. It’s easy to make appointments with the doctor or hairdresser. But the four days off aren’t always conveniently timed. I didn’t get my first Christmas off until 2016. It was lovely.

Manfred Samek, 55
Hot-Dip Galvanizing Plant 4

After my 18th birthday I wanted to work the night shift. It paid well. That’s important when you’re starting a family. Once we had children, it felt like I never even saw them.
I also didn’t talk to my wife very often. Over the years, my co-workers on the night shift have become a kind of family. We know each other well, and when one of us has a problem, we look after each other, regardless of whether it’s day or night. The night shift gradually becomes harder for the body to take. I don’t sleep too well in the mornings. But it’s different for everyone. My colleagues and I make up for it by working together. We move around a lot on the job. To ensure quality, we have to inspect the gauges and punches, we have to exchange the container for the trimming tensioner when it’s full, and we have to inspect the trimming blade, add oil, and so on. All this helps to prevent us from getting sleepy.

Wolfgang Reth, 59
Casting-Rolling Mill

I’ve been on the rotating shift for the past 40 years. In the beginning I was simply glad to have a job and make money. I only noticed the effects after it was too late – and I don’t mean the health effects. When my children were small, the rotating shift was very practical. There was always someone home to take care of them. My kids really enjoyed this, too. But when you’re constantly coming at the same time that your partner is going, and vice versa, your relationship falls by the wayside. Unfortunately, my first wife and I only realized this once it was too late. That’s why, before remarrying, I explained to my current wife what the rotating shift schedule would mean for our private life: I work on weekends, holidays, and birthdays. She has to go to parties alone on those days. I’m not there in the evenings during the night shift, and I need lots of peace and quiet in the mornings. Partners of people working a rotating shift have to be very understanding over the years. My wife is happy when I’m about to come home.

Dursun Can, 24

At the age of 17, I started my apprenticeship at Steel as a skilled worker specializing in port logistics. Since the second year of my apprenticeship, I’ve been working nights, too. It was hard for me at first. Since then, my body has become used to it, and I no longer find the rhythm so hard. I work on the train, and I’m responsible for making sure that the cars are unloaded properly. As a crane operator I unload the ship. It makes no difference here whether it’s day or night. When a load arrives, it needs to be unloaded. In the meantime, I’m working on qualifying as a master technician. This isn’t always easy, especially on the two night-shift days, but I’m doing it for myself.

Benjamin Kazmierczak, 37
Fire Department

I’ve been with the Duisburg fire department for almost 12 years and work a 24-hour shift. You get really close to your coworkers, and that’s the most important thing for me. When the day comes to an end and no call comes in, it’s a bit like hanging out in the evening, though we always have to stay alert. We may kick back, but there’s never more to it than relaxing. A lot of us make short phone calls to our families and tell the kids goodnight or listen to them talk about the math test that they took that day. As a team leader I’m in charge for a full 24 hours. Near the end of the day it gets quieter on the grounds. But when we get an emergency call, we have to move very fast, even if we just sat down to rest. We really have to know our way around the factory, especially at night. Area numbers and well-informed coworkers are particularly important then. We face a real challenge when someone reports an emergency in front of a red door near the blast furnace, for instance.