Actually, it wasn’t long ago. In the mid-1970s I was a college kid working various and sundry summer jobs. Unloading rail cars of cat food. Working (and hiding) in a vast warehouse. At a small metal stamping shop I stood by my machine and punched out rivets all day long. No goggles, no ear plugs, no face protection. Man, am I dating myself.

 Summer jobs opened my eyes to unfamiliar lives. Where you get dirty, talk dirty, and the hours drag. Once I was an apartment construction site “cowboy,” roaming the grounds, rounding up trash and debris. Time moved slower than watching grass grow. Took forever for the blessed morning break. That cut down the time to lunch. The afternoon stretch was a chore. Then after clocking out, you’d lie around an empty apartment with new carpeting, you and a few fellas, drinking from somebody’s six pack.

Today it would be different.

Different time, different world

I’d while away hours on my smartphone texting friends or calling them, probably waking them up. I’d get my ESPN updates, put in earphones and listen to music and sports podcasts. If I could sneak away and hide long enough, I could watch a flick on Netflix. I’d be accused of “presenteeism,” meaning I was at work in body, not in mind.

My only PPE in any job were gloves (occasionally) and of course the hard hat. Which was more symbolic than anything. I was outside, with only the sky overhead. Squat, cheap two-story apartment buildings were going up; I remember the superintendent on the phone in the trailer once yelling at someone, “We’re not doing brain surgery here.” I never felt in danger. Of course I was a summer temp with no training. What did I know?

I never wore workboots, was never told I had to. But picking up trash meant a lot of nails, broken glass, jagged wood, chunks of cement, twisted rebar. I wore gloves, but no one ever got on me about it. Summer temps on construction sites tended to be invisible. I just went about my business, daydreaming, yawning, no supervision. Scrounge, grab, carry and toss the junk in the dumpster. Lacerations and abrasions? Those words weren’t part of my vocabulary back then. My so-called safety awareness was zero, zip. I never recall a word being said about safety. Never saw a safety sign or “a safety guy” on site. I recall a couple of carpenters proudly showing me stumps where fingers used to be. Getting nicked like that was a man’s badge, like a pot belly.

We job-hopped in those summer days. This was when temp agencies would send you to a construction site for a couple of weeks, then a warehouse, then a fiberglass insulation plant. I remember unloading rolls of fiberglass from a tractor trailor. No one handed out dust masks. No talk about fibers lodging in lungs. I did have a couple of coughing fits, though.

Factory facts of life

The longest gig I held down was working at a glass factory in Gloucester, New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia oil refineries. The place was an anonymous low-slung cement building, no windows, in the middle of not exactly bustling downtown Gloucester. Even in the ’70s Gloucester was sliding backwards. A number of small manufacturing shops already had moved south. Still ever-present were cramped little tap rooms, one on every corner.

The glass factory employed maybe 50 guys. They made the kind of treated glass, cut to size, that was used in freezer doors in supermarkets. Sometimes machines sandwiched panes of glasses together for double insulation. You’d grab three-foot long panes of glass from racks and position them on large cranky machines with rollers. The whole thing smelled of oil. You hit a button, and away the glass would go, to be laminated. The trick was to run to the other end of the machine, maybe ten yards, pull the finished glass off the rollers and insert them into another rack.

I never received any safety instructions on how to operate the machinery. Or how to lift the glass out of the racks and position it squarely on the rollers so it would pass through the laminating and glazing equipment “square up,” not at any kind of angle, so it would get the full treatment. No job safety analysis. Someone showed me how to do it, that’s all.

Culture and engagement

The glass factory was a union shop; I guess the union steward would have handled any safety issues. There was no designated safety man. No safety talks. Closest we came to “engagement” was a couple of guys grabbing brooms to sweep the floor every Friday, 15 minutes before busting out for the weekend. “Culture”? We had a culture. It valued drinking. The “vision” was racing to the corner tap at lunch to chug a few.

The guys had a routine for every lunch break. Soon as the whistle blew, they high-tailed it to the nearest bar, grabbed an eight-pack of Rolling Rock pony bottles, and downed them like shots. Lunch break was 30 minutes. Some guys would test their “abilities” by running out during the ten-minute afternoon break, cross the street to the tap room, buy an eight pack, and see how many they could empty in five minutes or so.

Despite the boozing, I never saw someone get injured in the plant. I caused one incident, you could call it. It wasn’t an accident because it wasn’t random. Swill a few fast brews, come back after lunch fired up and not completely focused and see what happens. It won’t be an accident. One day I rushed back in before anyone else, went to one of the machines, punched the “on” button, and didn’t realize a couple of panes of finished glass were on the far side of the rollers, waiting to be racked up.

Crash, smash, a crackling boom, the sound of shattering glass. “What the hell ya doin’?” someone yelled. “Turn off the damn machine.” I swept up the glass shards and that was that. No one said another word about it.

Things change… and they don’t

The glass factory is long gone now. When I was there, OSHA had only been in existence for maybe four or five years. If that factory still operated today, I wonder after 40+ years of OSHA how much safety matters would’ve changed. Nondescript, out of the way places like that, I’m sure plenty still operate under the radar, rolling the dice and betting against ever seeing an OSHA agent. Time flies, but it doesn’t change everything.