Thursday, January 27, 2011

My Most Dangerous Job

I graduated from the University of Alberta in 1991, during the last recession. Good jobs were hard to come by. For three years, I delivered auto parts to Edmonton garages, searching for more fulfilling work the whole time. I finally quit in 1994, and I was lucky enough to stumble upon a very odd transitional job before moving on to the Western Board of Music in 1995.

That transistional job was the most bizarre and dangerous I've ever had. I was one of many workers whose task was to empty a huge warehouse and move all its odds and ends, everything from office furniture and files to industrial equipment, to another location across town. It should have been simple, but this jobsite was so dangerous I quit after three months, fearing I'd be killed or badly injured.

There must have been dozens of workers, ranging in age from twenty to sixty. We were mostly left to our own devices; imagine a horde of workers without gloves or helmets or direction hauling heavy boxes every whichway. Now imagine that many of these people knew nothing about moving safely.

Many of the items in the warehouse were stored on high shelves, shelves that consisted of rickety wooden boards laid down upon metal frames. We had no ladders or lifts; we had to clamber up the shelves, which themselves were not secured to the wall and rose to the ceiling, some twenty-five metres high. Workers near the top would pass down boxes to workers below. One of my coworkers was a nice young man from France, who was stunned when a heavy box slipped from another's grip and hit the Frenchman square atop the skull, nearly knocking him from his precarious perch down to the hard cement floor below. "Mon Dieu! Ma tete!" he shouted as the box bounced off his head and fell to the ground, bursting open to spew its contents all over the floor.

Just a couple of days later, two of the older workers were carrying a chandelier from one end of the top shelf to the other. Somehow the wooden shelf slipped halfway out of its frame, causing one worker to lose his balance. To avoid falling off the shelf, he overcompensated, careening to the right and throwing off the balance of his coworker. To this day I still don't completely understand the physics of how this happened, but in effect the first worker wound up bouncing off the shelf as if he were sprung from a diving board. The chandelier whipped around and gashed open the face of the second worker, who understandably lost his grip, blood oozing from his stunned face. The first worker wasn't strong enough to lift the chandelier himself, and so the chandelier toppled over the side, smashing into a million pieces on the floor, showering the rest of us with glass and metal shrapnel.

Not long after that, I helped load a massive industrial blueprint printer onto a forklift. This machine had to be over five metres long, and I have no idea how much it weighed; it took a dozen of us to push it the few inches needed to give the forklift access. The forklift operator lifted the forks about halfway, which seemed high to me, but what did I know? I wasn't a trained operator.

Apparently neither was he, because he took off at high speed and hit a bump on the warehouse floor. The centre of gravity shifted and the printer rolled precariously forward; the rear of the forklift rose high into the air, then crashed back down violently as the unsecured printer fell off the forks, bursting open with an ear-splitting crash and a spray of glass, oil and mechanical parts. The operator fell back into his seat so hard that the impact bounced him back into the air, and he struck his unhelmeted head on the roll cage hard enough to give him a concussion.

For some reason, the business owner had a classic muscle car stored in his garage. I don't know much about cars; all I can tell you is that it was blue and looked sort of like the car they drove on The Dukes of Hazzard. I guess the engine didn't work or there simply wasn't any fuel in the vehicle, because one worker had to steer while four or five others pushed. Unfortunately, the man steering didn't do a very good job, scraping the car's side along a support beam to create a huge dent and a long gash in the door. The business owner himself arrived on the scene just in time to witness this accident, and he wasn't happy.

Then came the last straw. I was one of a few workers asked to stay on for some additional weeks at the new warehouse, presumably because I hadn't destroyed anything or injured myself too badly to continue working. Our first job was to set up the shelving system - the same one that had already proven so dangerous at the first jobsite.

I've already mentioned that the metal shelving frames were very tall. They were also very heavy. The frames were lying on the floor, and our job was to lever them upright. Four of us were positioned at the base of the frame, and another four, many metres away, at the tip. Those at the tip walked forward, gradually lifting that end of the frame higher and higher into the air. Of course, as they walked toward those of us holding the base, more and more of the weight at the tip was unsupported. As the centre of gravity moved, we all found it harder and harder to hold onto the frame; the more the angle steepened, the harder it got. Once the frame stood perpendicular to the floor, we had to hold it in place while another team repeated the process with a second vertical frame. Only then could other workers lock the horizontal frame pieces into place, giving the structure some measure of stability.

We repeated this process several times, but eventually our tired muscles couldn't hold. We levered another frame into place, but we couldn't hold it perpendicular. The top swayed back and forth dizzily as we struggled to hang on, but in just a few seconds I felt the frame slipping from my grip, tipping over. We screamed at everyone to get out of the way of the falling hunk of metal, trying to hang on to give people time to escape. The frame hit the cement floor so hard that we felt the vibrations through our feet, and the clang of impact made our ears ring for several minutes. If that frame had hit anyone, they would have been killed.

That was enough for me. I walked to the foreman's office and gave notice. Six months later I had a much safer job, where the worst danger would turn out to be a possibly rabid bat...ah, but that's another story.


ZeeBride said...

Am I bad person for laughing hard enough to bring tears to my eyes at the chandelier story? The whole thing actually, but that was the highlight. Glad you survived Earl, and told us the tale.

Earl J. Woods said...

If you're a bad person, so am I - despite the danger of the situation, I laughed during the chandelier incident, although it was a laugh tinged with hysteria.