Monday, October 23, 2006

Risky Business

I just heard the news that there has been yet another coal mining accident, this time in Pennsylvania, this time taking one miner's life. Everytime I hear about something like this - and certainly, mining accidents are among the most terrible, tense, and dramatic - I can't help but think about how far removed most of us are from jobs that involve physical danger. Those of us who sit at a keyboard, staring at a screen all day, are more likely to die on the way to work than at work. The most dangerous elements to our jobs lately are eyestrain, carpal tunnel, exploding laptop batteries, and wrenching your back trying to juggle the water bottle into place.

Yes, there's always the possibility that some employee will snap and take some co-workers out. And obviously there are still many jobs that put workers at peril. (I don't count a 9/11 terrorist attack as a workplace hazard so much as a living in dangerous times hazard. Obviously, it was a work-related death for those hundreds of firemen, police officers, and EMTs, and for the pilots and stewardesses, et al.)

But our economy continues to move away from the reality of actual physical production of goods, fewer and fewer of us ever experience danger on the job.

Stress, yes. Physical danger, no.

If I look back at my own work history, I suffered two very minor injuries over time - both when I had a "real", physical job.

One summer during high school, I worked in a shoe factory. My usual job on the assembly line was polishing the edges of combat boots, but one day I was put on a task that involved pulling nails out of the heels of the boots. For whatever reason, this involved feeling around inside the boots, and no one clued me in that you needed to wrap your fingers in adhesive tape before you started feeling the boot up. In short order, I ended up with shredded finger tips. Fortunately, I did such a bad job with this task that they put me back on edge polishing. (The shoe factory is long closed, of course. I think it became a mattress factory, then got turned into condos.)

I also worked as a Durgin Park waitress for a year, and was badly scalded when a waitress coming into the kitchen the wrong way knocked into me while I was carrying four cups of scalding coffee. Needless to say, I got burnt. Badly enough to be out of work for a week with no pay. (For those not familiar with Boston, Durgin Park is a Quincy Market tourist trap - and probably the only place on earth that serves both Indian pudding and coffee jelly, which I see that they're now calling coffee jello.)

Obviously, there's no comparing my small ills with loss of life in a truly dangerous job like coal mining. I know that for many of those who do this "dirty work", there are few economic choices. Still, it takes a degree of physical and existential bravery that I lack to put on a hard hat and head into the mine each day, knowing the dangers it brings.

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