When I finally graduated college, my very first job was as a welder for a trailer company. No, not the kind of trailers you see in a trailer park; the trailers we made were transport trailers for big-rig trucks. If one of the frames fell on your foot, they would probably have to amputate the entire appendage. We had so many contracts we were rolling a trailer off the line every day, and believe me, it’s no easy task.
Anyway, I got a job in the fabrication department, welding and putting together frames. If you’ve ever put together an erector-set, it was something like that, only the directions are a lot harder to understand and the parts don’t come with the kit; some had to be made in-house. Despite all this, I was excited. The pay was great, I could work as many hours as I wanted, and the atmosphere was quite good, considering the condition of most manufacturing jobs that need welders (often they work on dirt floors or even in the open air). Life was good.
Unfortunately, the job wasn’t as grand, for a welding position, as I had been led to believe. I was basically delegated to a glorified erector-set builder with a set of instructions too small to read and not in any way up to industry standards of drafting. And then there was the communications problems: Noise aside, most people didn’t even speak the same language. In fact, the primary languages around the factory were Spanish and Thai, not English. When I could hear a conversation over the ear-splitting noise (I had to wear earplugs and a mask while on the floor), it often sounded like muffled screaming into a can stuffed with cotton. Imagine trying to learn anything when your supervisor can’t speak proper English and sounds like he has a gag in his mouth.
Then there were the numerous safety and health code violations that made a routine visit to the back of my mind. For one thing, whenever one of these two-ton frames got finished, they used to pick them up on a crane that went over everyone’s workspaces, which meant over us. We all used to duck down beneath anything that might shield us from one of these things falling; one slip and a guy was crushed, whatever he was hiding under. We never had a problem while I was there, so I mostly chalked this off as routine.
But the real kicker was the aluminum vapors from the plasma cutter. We had this giant machine in the back that would use high-density electricity to cut out the shapes we needed to assemble the frames. Most of the time it worked just fine, but more often than was comfortable, the vacuum meant to collect the vapors broke down. When this happened, super-fine particles of aluminum spread all over the factory in a metallic fog, getting in everyone’s eyes, mouth, and lungs, despite wearing safety gear.
After a month, I learned other things about the place: They had lost a third of their labor force to a purge by the Federal Government because they had so many illegal immigrants, they were backlogged on jobs for months because of it, and they were working us all 60-plus hours a week with hard labor, sometimes longer if they needed to call people in on a Sunday. The turnover rate for employees was two months or less; a buddy that followed me to the company was there for a week before quitting.
None of which I cared too much about. I was just happy to have a job. Unfortunately, the aluminum vapors started to affect my health, leaving me weakened and unable to focus. There were many near-misses as my condition worsened. I tried to detoxify, but constantly being exposed to so much aluminum vapor, which management seemed in no hurry to fix despite numerous complaints from employees, left me with a reoccurring problem. As you can imagine, I chose to take the money I had made, which was substantial, and leave before things got any worse. I really did want to stay, the money was great, but I wasn’t about to sacrifice my health for a few dollars in my pocket in the short-term.
The funny thing is, my welding teacher had warned us all not to work for a certain trailer company, but I couldn’t remember the name of it. I wonder…