Sugar Mountain: The night shift at Domino Sugar

It is 11:30 p.m. and raw sugar operator Richard Sears is hard at it, pounding a CAT 950 front-end loader through dune-sized hills of raw unprocessed sugar in an arena-like enclosure. A 15-year employee of Domino Sugar, Sears scoops and dumps load after load into a huge hopper to keep "the [raw] sugar flowing into the house" where it is processed. Because they're short-handed tonight, Sears is pulling a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift—and is just one of 75 employees working the night shift at the Inner Harbor plant on any given evening.

As he drives the loader through mountains of sugar, a melted molasses syrupy scent coats the air and wafts beyond the company's grounds by the Inner Harbor where Domino has nestled for the last 93 years. Producing an average of 20 million pounds of packaged product per week—granulated, confectionary, and brown—Domino Sugar employees, 500 in all, process raw sugar through its steps of filtration, boiling, crystallization, then package and load it, none of which could be done without electricity. And at Domino all of the energy needed to power the plant—and its infamous neon sign—is generated on site.

Emmanuel Scriven, stationary engineer, with Mark Hilditch, powerhouse mechanic, also work the night shift to keep the plant humming. When they're not making rounds to survey a warehouse full of massive electricity-generating machines, Scriven, a 26-year employee, and Hilditch, a 15-year employee, hole up in their office to conduct tests or monitor several computer screens. The walls are covered floor to ceiling with needle indicator dials, LED screens, switches, and knobs that help them track and control water levels, steam pressure, turbine activity, and all things power-full.

Just after midnight on this December evening, the roar of power production outside the walls of their tiny office, buried deep within the plant, is deafening. With the door closed, they can speak quietly: "My job is the operation of boilers and generators to supply the plant with air, electricity and all utilities necessary," Scriven, 56, says.

"And I assist the engineer with taking care of the power plant," Hilditch, 55, adds. "Everything comes through here. We have five boilers, three turbines." He follows the machines' vitals on computer monitors. "We had a little blip," he says, explaining that earlier the computer alerted them to a water level problem in the boiler but when Hilditch checked it out, the boiler was fine.

Scriven appreciates that "there's not as many managers running around" on the overnight shift, and Hilditch agrees that's a plus, but says the constant shift rotations can be a hardship. Many Domino employees rotate on a swing shift schedule. One week they work 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., the next it's 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., finally the overnight shift, and then the rotation starts over. "I don't particularly care for the time I lose when we switch, when we go from nights to days," Hilditch says. "You kind of lose that day. Same thing going the other direction."

The overnight shift "grows on you after a while," says Scriven. "I've got my daylight. I can make appointments, take care of business, and still make it to work without taking a day off." But the tough thing, Scriven says, is that everybody else in his life works regular hours. "So you're getting up and they're going to bed or you're going to bed and they're getting up, so you're a little bit backwards from the rest of the world."

But the two men themselves are consistently in sync with their work schedules. "We always stay together," says Hilditch.

"We haven't killed each other yet," Scriven adds.

For production supervisor Jasen Bullinger, 31, working overnight provides some balance in his life. Typically, some supervisors rotate swing shifts every two months but Bullinger has been on the C-shift, as he calls it, for about four months, and it works for him. "I'm home by 8 o'clock in the morning and I see the kids off to school and I wake up when I hear their bus pull up so I don't miss any time with the kids or the family," he says. "I still have dinner at home and when they go to bed at night, I come in [to work]."

Bullinger, who has been at Domino Sugar for two-and-a-half years, supervises 45 to 50 people and sometimes more, depending on the shift. He does paperwork and troubleshoots, he says, but the main focus is "being out on the floor with the employees and making sure that the lines are running."

And the lines are running.

At about 1:30 a.m. he pulls a report that tells him his overnight team exceeded its goals and packaged 3.9 million pounds of granulated sugar and 242,000 pounds of brown sugar in a day. It was just before Christmas and production was up. Check out the gallery here.

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