Print Story Safety
By toxicfur (Sun Mar 27, 2011 at 02:16:12 PM EST) (all tags)
Friday was the 100-year anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. I read a story once, by Michael Cunningham I believe, that was based in part on that fire or one very much like it. The images of women trapped behind locked fire doors, pushing to escape the flames, or holding hands and leaping to their death haunt me. I'm not sure why this disaster, among so many, fills me with such an intense sick dread. The disaster could've been avoided if common sense safety measures had been in place. The doors should have opened out instead of in. They should not have been locked to prevent unauthorized breaks. There should have been enough exits that women weren't crushed as they tried to escape the flames.

The response from companies to increased safety regulations was also sickeningly familiar -- these new regulations would cost too much money. They would force the prices of goods up to the point that they would destroy the economy. Surely, was the implicit message, these few lost lives (in the grand scheme of monocles and yachts for the company owners) were a worthwhile price to pay for cheap goods and increased profits.

It's all about the money.

When I was in the 6th grade, my mom joined the workforce for the first time since I was born. Her four children were very close to all being school-age, and the cost of daycare was suddenly less than her earning potential. She was trying to keep the four of us in the private school where my grandmother had taught, and my father was drinking away what little bit of extra money our family had after bills were paid and groceries bought.

The one place in town where she was able to find a job was a textile factory, once JP Stevens, then Stevcoknit, now closed. My mom was bright and motivated, and a pretty 31-year-old then (holy Christ, much younger than I am now), and she landed a relatively cushy job pushing paper in the office of the mill, as it was called by all who worked there. In our tiny town, "I work at the mill" was readily understood. Mama threw herself into her job, and refused to let her coworkers' negativity and inability to adjust to change deter her from figuring out new and better ways to do her job.

But, when the cuts inevitably came, she was the one with the least seniority (this was not a union shop -- unions barely exist in the South -- though there were a number of union members at the mill), and she lost the cushy office job.

She went onto the floor. It was actually a pay increase. I think she may have made as much as $8 or $10 an hour. Her soft mother's body turned to steel. I'd never been able to beat her in arm wrestling, but after she'd been pushing bins full of bolts of knit cloth, it wasn't even a contest. I don't remember the details of her job, but she worked hard, physically, from the time she arrived at 8 in the morning, until she left at 4.

At some point after she'd been doing this job for a while, her supervisor suggested she join the Stevcoknit Safety Committee. There had long been a faded sign covered in chipped white paint and once-black letters announcing the number of days since the last lost-time accident. The Committee had a contest for the best new safety sign design, and she entered and, unsurprising, won, creating an acronym -- SPARKY, I think -- and a multi-colored robot-esque boy wearing a sideways baseball cap and holding a placard with the days-since-lost-time-accident number.

Members of the Safety Committee were also encouraged to bring up safety violations or to discuss things that may cause danger to the plant's workers. My mom enjoyed the committee, I think, because it got her off the floor, allowed her to do something with her mind, and made it seem as if she was actually listened to. So she told the other committee members about something that had been bothering her for a while in her area.

One of the things she did was to take bolts of fabric, usually in the 40-pound range, and stack them in bins that were just about head-height for her, a relatively tall woman at 5'8". She would fling the bolts of cloth into the bin, and then, when it was full, she would brace her upper arm flat against it and push it to the next area of the factory. Because people are inherently lazy, they didn't stop stacking once the bin was full, though. They would stack the bolts of cloth well above the top, Mama told the Safety Committee, and one day, one of those bolts was going to fall off and hurt someone.

Everyone nodded and said that yes, that seemed like it could be bad.

And she was ignored.

Within a few months, when I was about 13 or 14, she was the someone who was injured. The bin was brimming over with bolts of cloth, and she raised her right arm, bracing it against the metal bin and shoved hard with her left hand, elbow locked, and her body to get it moving. One of the precariously balanced rolls fell, landing almost squarely on her left shoulder, dislocating it and knocking her to the ground, where she fractured the top of her humerus, now no longer safely ensconced in the joint.

The pain was excruciating, and she writhed on the floor, trying not to scream. She was not one who gave in to pain. She accepted whatever illness and injury came her way without fear or tears or whining. That's just who she was. An ambulance came and took her to the hospital, where her arm was put back into joint. She told me later that it was far worse than childbirth had been, those minutes riding in the ambulance and then bracing herself as they popped the shoulder back into place.

I got home from school that afternoon, and Mama's arm was strapped to her body and her face was gray. "Are you okay?" I asked. "What happened?" I wasn't afraid. This was my mom, who treated the flu as if was a minor inconvenience, who hadn't once shown pain after her hysterectomy and who was always, always superhumanly strong, physically and emotionally.

"I got hurt pretty bad," she told me. There was pain in her face, and I resolutely tried to ignore it, to laugh it off as she would for one of my skinned knees or banged head. "Yep, you've got a goose-egg on your head," she'd tell me as my eyes watered after some stupidly brave maneuver on my bicycle, and she'd hand me an icepack and tell me to go back outside to play.

She told me what had happened, and the fury and disappointment in her voice as she told me about the Safety Committee's refusal to listen were even more painful to me than the fact of her injury.

Over the next few months as she recovered, went to physical therapy, and slowly regained some use of her arm, she went to work every day. She was not, she told me, allowed to take any time off. "That would make it a lost-time injury," she told me bitterly. Each time we'd drive past the mill, she'd glare at SPARKY, his little placard recording days since an injury continuing to count upward.

"Why do they care?" I asked.

It was, of course, all down to money.

If they had a lost-time injury, they'd be fined by their corporate overlords. It would give her additional leverage should she decide to sue them. They quietly paid her medical bills, and they allowed her to do practically nothing during her 8 hours there, but they would not let her recover at home. Not even immediately after the accident. If she took a day off, it would be coming out of her one week of paid vacation, or she wouldn't be paid at all. It's just the way things worked.

She did manage during this time to find out that she would be owed a rather substantial disability pay-out from the company. The orthopedic doctor she'd been seeing told her that she had a 39% disability in her left arm. It was years before she could reach behind her to fasten or unfasten her bra without excruciating pain. It was many months before she even had enough mobility to try. She passed the disability number along to the people in charge of such things and they balked. They needed a second opinion, from a doctor of their own choosing.

So she went off to their doctor, who said she had an 8% disability.

"Bullshi-it," she told me. She did further investigation, and found out that she could get a third opinion. She picked a doctor in Chapel Hill, one of the top orthopedic hospitals in the region (perhaps in the nation), and she asked me to go with her. We drove the 3 hours or so through the North Carolina countryside to Chapel Hill, which was tremendously exciting for me. Even then, I loved urban (meaning anything bigger than my own town) areas, and I especially loved college towns. We registered and sat in the waiting area until she was called back. I read women's magazines, marveling at what people revealed for anyone to read in such publications, until she came back, triumph written all over her face.

"He looked at my records, asked what the first doctor had said, and said, 'That sounds good to me,'" she told me as we left the hospital. "He didn't believe their doctor either, even though he didn't say that. Now I can work on gettin' it workin' right again." She smirked at me.

It took another year or more for her to finally get the disability check from the mill. By that point, my father had left, and my mom was raising the four of us entirely on her own. She took the check, only about $15,000, and we went to Wilmington. Our first stop was GMAC, where she paid off her car, which took nearly all of the check, after late fees and stupidly high interest rates and missed payments. Then we went to Hieronymous Seafood, where she'd heard they had an oyster roast on Friday nights. We stuffed ourselves silly on oysters and iced tea and hushpuppies, all gleeful at our sudden good fortune.

Bills were paid, and we were, for a moment, comfortable. Still, though, every time we drove past the mill, even after she had left to be a nurse, she glared at the now-fading SPARKY, with his ever-increasing days since lost-time accident.

< IT SPEAKS! | My fingertips and toes are frozen to the bone. >
Safety | 20 comments (20 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
Good story by spiralx (4.00 / 1) #1 Sun Mar 27, 2011 at 02:31:22 PM EST
And yeah, things like that make me feel sick sometimes as well. 

VSTFP by infinitera (4.00 / 4) #2 Sun Mar 27, 2011 at 02:39:54 PM EST
Thank you.

[…] a professional layabout. Which I aspire to be, but am not yet. — CheeseburgerBrown

Front page. by technician (4.00 / 3) #3 Sun Mar 27, 2011 at 05:10:58 PM EST
I love this: "Then we went to Hieronymous Seafood, where she'd heard they had an oyster roast on Friday nights. We stuffed ourselves silly on oysters and iced tea and hushpuppies, all gleeful at our sudden good fortune."

When I was about 5 or 6, my dad got injured on the job, working as a food service grunt for Continental Airlines. I got home from school and there he was, sitting in the one easy chair we had. It was like some kind of unannounced Saturday: there's my dad, when he should be at work! Not only was he home, he had bought two huge bags of toys for my brother and I, including these sweet battery powered cable-operating remote control planes.

We had a blast that day while my dad snoozed through a vicodin haze, his foot propped up. His toe'd been broken and his lower back sprained because of a faulty brake on a food cart; it had rolled back and all 400 pounds had decided his foot was the place to stop.

To their credit, Continental and the airport both paid him off quickly and pretty largely. A settlement, he called it, but even though I was a kid I knew a bribe when I saw one. That being said, his foot was fine in a couple of weeks, they paid for all his time off and his medical, and he was back to drumming in a few days (pot and tequila make an amazing pain killer).

(Comment Deleted) by mellow teletubby (4.00 / 1) #7 Mon Mar 28, 2011 at 09:08:58 AM EST

This comment has been deleted by mellow teletubby

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Yes, I am... by technician (4.00 / 1) #8 Mon Mar 28, 2011 at 09:09:55 AM EST
...but what does it explain?

[ Parent ]
(Comment Deleted) by mellow teletubby (4.00 / 3) #9 Mon Mar 28, 2011 at 09:12:19 AM EST

This comment has been deleted by mellow teletubby

[ Parent ]
Hmmm by spiralx (2.00 / 0) #17 Mon Mar 28, 2011 at 08:32:04 PM EST
It's interesting that for me, by toxicfur (4.00 / 1) #13 Mon Mar 28, 2011 at 11:52:16 AM EST
the two things I remember most clearly about my mom's injury are her face the day she got hurt and the oyster dinner we all had when she was paid off. I don't think I saw the pay-out as a bribe until I was much older, though clearly it was. Had she sued them, especially with the Safety Committee minutes, she probably could have gotten a substantial amount of money from them.

I'm glad your dad's injury healed quickly and that Continental took care of him. And so cool that he brought you and your brother toys! I wanted one of those remote control planes so bad when I was a kid....
The amount of suck that you can put up with can be mind-boggling, but it only really hits you when it then ceases to suck. -- Kellnerin

[ Parent ]
Says a lot about our parents, by technician (4.00 / 1) #14 Mon Mar 28, 2011 at 01:25:24 PM EST
though, that they "celebrated" their payouts with stuff for the family.

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I am sad that this shit happens by ambrosen (4.00 / 4) #4 Sun Mar 27, 2011 at 05:39:42 PM EST
and hereby resolve never to make sarcastic comments when filling in workplace risk assessments just because I have a desk job (in an organisation where people do get injured as a consequence of doing the job).

Coincidentally by spiralx (4.00 / 1) #5 Mon Mar 28, 2011 at 05:43:01 AM EST
Having just got back into the office after my holiday, I have to redo my workplace health and safety assessment.

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Quite by Herring (4.00 / 2) #6 Mon Mar 28, 2011 at 05:51:51 AM EST
People (Littlejohn) sneer about H&S quite a bit but there are still many people killed and injured at work - often due to penny-pinching by employers.

You can't inspire people with facts
- Small Gods

[ Parent ]
Oh, I make sarcastic comments, too. by toxicfur (4.00 / 1) #12 Mon Mar 28, 2011 at 11:30:11 AM EST
I had to go through a safety training session even though I have a desk job, and I more or less paid attention, even though it was really more geared toward people working in labs. Then I took a survey (that arose from a grant that I helped to get funded) about emergency management and what I know about how to react in an emergency. I failed rather miserably (we have automatic defibrillators on campus somewhere? there are processes for how to deal with bomb threats and such?), which was a rather humbling experience.
The amount of suck that you can put up with can be mind-boggling, but it only really hits you when it then ceases to suck. -- Kellnerin
[ Parent ]
On the job injuries... by wiredog (2.00 / 0) #10 Mon Mar 28, 2011 at 10:54:34 AM EST
Setting aside the ones we had in the Army...

The one that sticks in my mind was when a guy in the plastic shop, building a chemical tank, was prepping pieces of plastic (3/4" thick) for welding by running them through a tabletop router. A tabletop router has the router fixed upside down under the table so that the router bits stick through the table. Then you run the pieces through it. He was an older guy (the age I am now?) with lots of experience. He decided that all the safeties got in his way and slowed him down, which they did, and that using a push stick gave him a little less control, which it did. So he decided not to use them. Despite having had all the training that everyone, including me, got on Not Doing Stupid Things With Power Tools.

While pushing a piece through the router it got hung up, so he pushed harder. It got unhung. He routed out his hand. Messily.

About a week after that OSHA came through. In the areas with the really dangerous stuff (like HF, or high voltages) they used words like "exemplary" to describe the training and procedures. The only thing I can remember them dinging us on was a stairway where the steps were not uniformly enough spaced. Something like more than 1/4 inch variation in height. We didn't get fined, we just had to show we fixed it. Which we did.

The guy who routed his hand got fired for ignoring safety rules.

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

Yikes. by toxicfur (2.00 / 0) #11 Mon Mar 28, 2011 at 11:27:33 AM EST
I admit that I physically flinched when you said that he routed his hand. That... wow. My dad's father, who worked in a furniture factory, lost most of one finger in a saw accident that sounds something like what you're describing, though I have no idea what, if any, safety practices were in effect then. He did keep his job, though, and ended up working in a relatively good office job at the factory before he passed away.
The amount of suck that you can put up with can be mind-boggling, but it only really hits you when it then ceases to suck. -- Kellnerin
[ Parent ]
the rest of the story by wumpus (2.00 / 0) #15 Mon Mar 28, 2011 at 01:37:46 PM EST
Since what he was doing was faster and gave him more control, how many places would set his expected productivity to the level without safety gear? Could he ever prove it?

One company I worked for was fanatical about inflicting an "ethics handbook" on all employees and insisting on its return (often the *only* thing explicitly mentioned returning, before such trivialities such as keys, passwords, badges). My guess is because it pretty much said "our butts are covered. If we give you the choice between doing something unethical and walking, that is your choice. Don't bother to keep your own file, it won't work."


[ Parent ]
Place I was at wasn't like that. by wiredog (2.00 / 0) #16 Mon Mar 28, 2011 at 02:18:14 PM EST
We were pretty fanatical about safety.

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

[ Parent ]
as evidenced by OSHA by gzt (4.00 / 1) #18 Wed Mar 30, 2011 at 11:40:03 AM EST
they're pretty tough when they come through after somebody's routed their hand.

[ Parent ]
Some people are like that by Herring (2.00 / 0) #19 Wed Mar 30, 2011 at 12:11:25 PM EST
When I was working in an engineering shop, we had a character who got nicknamed "One Cut" because of his approach to machining - take it all off in one cut. He had a way with safety too. A couple of examples: leaving a 2ft spanner on the draw bolt on top of a mill then starting it up - sound like a helicopter winding up, then shouts of "shit" as everyone goes face-down on the floor and an almighty clang as the spanner hits the end of the factory some 150 feet away.

Another one was when he went for half a cut - trying to face off two castings at once by clamping them in the same vice. Of course, two castings aren't going to be exactly the same size so only one of them will be clamped properly...

Nice guy but nobody wanted to work next to him.

You can't inspire people with facts
- Small Gods

[ Parent ]
Vibration testing... by ana (2.00 / 0) #20 Wed Mar 30, 2011 at 12:16:33 PM EST
When building space-flight hardware, it's important that it survive the launch, preferably without shedding parts. There are standards as to frequency and acceleration, which vary, but ours were for the space shuttle, which has the added complication that if something flies off it might kill a nearby astronaut.

We affixed our payload to the shake table, carefully verified all the bolts were torqued to spec, etc. etc., left the chamber, watched anxiously through heavy plexiglass (with due ear protection) as it went through its thing, and hey! It passed! So back into the chamber to remove the payload and go to the next chamber of horrors. Only to discover that one of the engineers had left his pocket knife sitting on the table.

Where, unaccountably, it still sat, after the test. It's still not clear why he had his pocket knife out at all.

"And this ... is a piece of Synergy." --Kellnerin

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Safety | 20 comments (20 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback