The Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia makes me think about the men in my family – father, grandfathers, and several uncles – who worked in the mile-deep copper mines of Butte, Montana. They knew the work was dangerous and expected to lose at least a part of themselves to the mines; in fact I grew up thinking it was normal for a man over 40 to be missing at least a finger. Death they took a little more seriously. When my great-grandfather got the news that his brother had just been killed in a cave-in, he went down from where he was working, found his brother’s supervisor, and killed him on the spot, presumably with a pick-ax.
No charges were filed, either because it’s easy enough to camouflage a murder in the mines or because the authorities knew that no miner would testify against my great-grandfather. From the miners’ point of view, justice had already been done.
Most people end up sacrificing their bodies to their jobs, though generally in a more gradual, piecemeal, fashion than those miners in West Virginia. I could see this vividly when I entered the blue-collar work world to research Nickel and Dimed. There was J., for example, a 70-ish woman I worked with as a housecleaner at The Maids International. J. had worked with the company long enough – two years – to be featured in its monthly newsletter, but she received no awards or even a word of thanks when she left the job to undergo knee surgery.
I was there on her last day, and drove her home when her ride didn’t show up. Her knees had been destroyed by scrubbing floors on her hands and knees, at least that was her theory. The company took pride in the hands-and-knees approach and wouldn’t think of letting us use mops. But it wasn’t just her knees, J. said, her back was gone too—a loss she attributed to the approximately 12-pound “back-pack” vacuum cleaner the company provided to speed up our work. She was bitter about the absence of any formal thanks or good wishes, and said she’d been falling from favor ever since her knees and back began to go. Once you’re damaged, you can’t expect to be popular with the boss.
I didn’t sustain any injuries on my various jobs, unless you want to count a briefly serious rash from cleaning fluids at the housecleaning job and a painful bunion that first appeared while waitressing. But the only reason I didn’t was that I didn’t work at any job long enough for it to take its full toll. There was plenty of pain all around me: rotator cuff injuries, slipped discs, repetitive stress injuries, damaged knees and feet, and, inevitably, with age, arthritis in the overworked joints. Among my co-workers, one of the most common subjects of discussion was pain management, and the most frequently shared item was Advil.
While blue collar people suffer from too much motion – and weight to lift, and difficult postures – pink and white collar workers have the opposite problem: they hardly get to move at all. One of the most difficult aspects of the research I did for Bait and Switch was the endless sitting required at networking, coaching and “boot camp” events for the white collar unemployed. Since none of my fellow job-seekers complained, I assume they found nothing unnatural about all this enforced sedentism, that they were accustomed, in other words, to entire days spent at a desk in an office or cubicle.
But it’s not “natural.” The first depictions of chairs are from only about 5000 years ago, in Egypt, and prolonged sitting for purposes of work – monks copying manuscripts, for example – is a lot more recent. Sitting challenges the spine, which eventually revolts in painful spasms. Immobility itself undermines the cardiovascular system, contributing to heart attacks and strokes. Of course you can try to compensate with an hour a day at the gym, should you be so fortunate as to have a free hour a day to play around with.
None of this damage has to happen. The mines could be a lot of safer, and would be if the mining companies cared or if the existing safety regulations were more strictly enforced. (The Sago mine, site of the disaster, was cited for over 200 safety violations in 2005, and fined a mere $24,000 for them.) Housecleaners could work more comfortably with mops and normal, drag-along, vacuum cleaners. In any job, tasks could be rotated so that no one ends up repetitively stressing the same muscles and tendons day after day. As for white collar desk-dwellers, why not encourage walk-around breaks? I’ve gotten up five times while writing this – to refill my iced tea and perform small acts of housework, and because I’m constitutionally incapable of sitting for long.
The best way to remember the dead in West Virginia is to think of them as the canaries in a much larger, metaphorical mine – reminders of all the unnecessary sacrifices of health and life people make every day in exchange for a paycheck. And the best way to honor their memory would be to revive the movement, which has been largely languid since the seventies, for occupational health and safety regulations you can count on.