Sunday, August 10, 2014

Not So Wrenching

This is my impact wrench. There are many like it, but this one is mine.  It is my life.  I must master it as I must master my life. Without me my impact wrench is useless.  Without my impact wrench, I am useless...

I actually use five such wrenches (power drills with socket bits, basically) in my work, so I can't say I have an exclusive allegiance, but I would be helpless without them.

By Saturday afternoon, I was so exhausted I could feel my pulse in my chest when I breathed. Almost sixty hours of manual labor wearing steel-toed, plastic-lined leather boots (weight on my postal scale: 2 lbs. each) in six days really wears a person out!

The initial impression of the factory was a little overwhelming: there's pervasive and perpetual noise, loops of blue hose hang overhead for the pneumatic tools on the main line, trolleys move along the assembly line, forklifts run hither and thither, everyone plugs away at their stations, and then there is the challenge of navigating the labyrinths of supply was all disorienting.

Even with good plugs stuffed deep into my ear canals, the plant is a non-stop cacophony: the rattle and quack (some sound exactly like duck calls) of impact wrenches tuned to precise newton-meters, the classical ditties sung (like tinny player pianos) by the automated trolleys on the line, signaling their progress between stations.  There are mallets banging, diesel engines roaring as the tractors are cranked for the first time, beeps from line machinery, and whirring from the fleet of small yellow forklifts racing around the perimeter (they are darting into the dark holds of delivery trucks backed up to open dock doors around three sides of the building, hoisting off heavy components and whisking them to stations on the line.  The forklift drivers also give a perfunctory double-tap on their horns when they go through pedestrian intersections, but unless you've caught the eye of the driver, you can't be sure of his seeing you).  Snatches of song and shouted conversation echo around the plant, too--it is a nonstop concatenation of industry and sound.

Though generally clean, filled with light and well-equipped, absent unpleasant fumes and odors, and though the workers are shielded from many injuries by protective gear and OSHA guidelines, the modern tractor factory is still a potentially dangerous place to work. Mainly, one has to watch out for the forklifts, which are driven by a gregarious bunch of paunchy men, some of whom don't bother to look over their shoulders when whirling half a ton of cast metal in reverse (I knew I came close to getting squished the other day when I was beavering away at my secondary station, inside the safety lines yet, and suddenly felt the hot breath of a forklift engine on the back of my neck). The main reported injuries are to the hands, and I am so grateful to have cut-resistant gloves, as some of the metal parts I heft have rough edges, and there is the ever-present danger of pinching one's fingers in the machinery.

We "newbies" had to wear yellow reflective vests until certified to work our assigned stations unsupervised and trusted to navigate the maze of shelves, carts, machinery, stacks of fiberglass pallets, wooden boxes, steel "buckhead" (I kept erroneously calling them "carabou") holders, and, of course, the whizzing forklifts without getting lost or being crushed.  I was declared certified in a day (a night) and a half, and allowed to de-vest, but the paperwork wasn't actually completed until my fourth shift.  I am happy to have my own little corner, or two corners, at a pair of stations assembling "subs".  I put together components for the folks on the line to install. I spend most of the 10 hours of my nighttime workday on my feet, only getting to sit down for the two 15-minute breaks and at the mealtime, which occurs after most of the dayshift population is long asleep, at 10 PM.  I work much faster by myself. Most people do, probably, but the main line seems to be chat central, particularly when there is a backup, and I know I would start making more mistakes than I am already, and not catch them, if I had someone to talk to over an engine or transmission, and so I am glad to be in my own little world.

My main station is neat and organized. I learned that the man who works there during daylight hours did, in fact, use to be a doctor in his native land, and he keeps everything in surgical order, and a bowl of individually-wrapped mints in the middle of the work table. There are steel racks of several dozen open plastic containers, all filled to various levels with bolts, nuts, bushings, and other parts.  My line supervisor checks on me regularly, and makes sure I have the parts I need in abundance, and the man for whom I sub has been very nice about telling me my faults gently, and gradually, so I can improve without feeling like I am getting scolded.  (My sister had cautioned me that language in a manufacturing setting was sure to be raw, but thus far in this majority-male environment it has been considerably cleaner than that among some of my former female coworkers!)

Physically, however, I feel a certain kinship with one of those unfortunate waterfowl engulfed by a tanker spill. My skin is saturated with engine grease, a grey sludge that has accumulated under my fingernails and in my ears, and settled into my wrist wrinkles. No matter how diligently I rub my washcloth over my arms, I still feel the sticky film and see the fissures between my pores lined with graphite, as if I am wearing a fine lattice body-stocking.  The stuff seems impervious to soap and water. George Orwell wrote about the unpleasant sensation of having soap dry on the back of one's neck, and I have a similar, though more viscous feeling on my back after my shower.  My right wrist aches from the vibration of torquing bolts to fifty and sixty newton-meters.  Shallow scratches cover my ID badge and my left forearm from hoisting metal parts and fitting them together--absent my yellow vest and with all this superficial wear and tear, I already look like an old hand!

The line supervisor is female, and probably two-thirds of the employees are African American.  It's been a major cultural adjustment for me to be asked, immediately after exchanging names, "Are you married? Do you have kids?"  In the world of DC social interaction, these are questions only indirectly posed, and usually after considerable discussion of the person's job and point of origin. Here, we're all semi-skilled labor, putting in ten paid hours a weekday on the assembly line, and eight more on Saturday.  This really gives new meaning to "full time job."  All waking hours are absorbed with work, so the nighttime employee has only his or her shift-sharers to talk to. After 10.5 hours at the plant you are dog-tired, and after three days of the same, the conversations around the meal tables recede in volume, and everyone ends up staring, glassy-eyed, at the 24-hour news program reporting wars and rumors thereof which is constantly playing on the flatscreens in the upper corner of the room.

As always, there are interesting characters among my coworkers.  One fortyish good ol' boy forklift driver has asked me out three times so far [to coffee after work (at 4 in the morning!?), lunch and afternoon tea (or whatever one consumes on a Sunday after dinner). I was thinking he must be desperate, to approach a woman covered head to toe in machine oil, wearing personal protective equipment and sweating over transmission parts. And then I reflected that a person working the industrial night shift truly has no other social recourse. All you do is work, eat and sleep.  I am one of perhaps eight women out of about eighty workers, and the only young(ish) single Caucasian female.]  I saw one of the maintenance guys, a New York native who calls Seattle home (his wife, though, has determined they won't return to Washington State, preferring to be in the warm and sunny South) briskly kicking a malfunctioning trolley that had bottle-necked the whole line--he said not only did kicking get the job done, it was also a good way to release frustration.  And when I arrived at work on Thursday, we were joined at the opening group five-minute meeting (we all stand around in our gear while the supervisor gets up on a little metal platform and gives us a rundown of the day and a pep talk for the evening) there was a thin bespectacled guy in clean, pressed clothes who looked like the stereotype of a nerdy and neurotic accountant straight out of central casting...who turned out to be an accountant.  He said he was volunteering on the line to improve production, and he tried to sound tough in front of the proles by saying "damn" a couple of times, which actually made him sound more wimpy than he looked.  I think he lasted maybe two hours before disappearing in the direction of home.

So, in other words, I survived my first week of "real" full-time work. I'm tired, sore, and stained, but I made it.  Lord willing, I'll adjust to the hours and the pace, and my wrist won't get worse.  And maybe, a daytime job with benefits, fewer hours and a higher wage will drop into my lap.  But in the meantime, I'll be at my station.  Or in bed asleep!


Barbara said...

Wow. I couldn't do that. Kudos to you. Hang in there! Been praying for you & thinking about you.

gnutron said...

Punk-ass bean counters. You should challenge him to an arm wrestling match. And then quiz him about Keynes whilst breaking his wrist.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the good ol' boy is desperate and maybe not. You are single correct? If he is around 40 and I would assume Caucasian, maybe African American, he probably doesn't have to many options you are correct with the hours. Besides, you are well educated and I would assume easy on the eyes. You are what is called a "good catch".