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My folks moved to Tennessee while I was in college. I spent a summer there working for a company that made signs. It was a very interesting experience and the only time I have worked in a factory.
The company employed 52 men. Two of us had completed high school. We made $1.30 an hour. After six months of satisfactory work experience we were eligible for a nickel raise. Before the raise, that worked out to be $52 a week gross. That is $2704 for 52 weeks, a year. I was a college kid. To me, living at home, this was spending money. The other guys were living off it, many raising families.
The factory was new. But, the equipment was not. Originally the factory was in Ohio. It was disassembled and moved to Tennessee where it was reassembled. This was done to avoid dealing with unions and to avoid providing benefits which were expensive. There was no health insurance, no unemployment compensation, no retirement. Lean and mean! The company was lean and mean!
We punched in our time on a time clock when we arrived and we punched out when the day was finished. The guys would hang back a bit in order to get a few extra minutes on their card. During the day we had a 15 minute coffee or toilet break mid-morning, a 20 minute lunch break and then another 15 minute coffee/ toilet break mid-afternoon. Thus, was the daily routine.
We made silk screened metal signs. They are not very common today, but back then they were seen everywhere in rural areas. Signs saying things like “Firestone” or “Pepsi” nailed to the side of a garage or café.
The process took blank sheets of metal, ran them through a paint roller to apply an even coating of a background color, such as white or red. The coated blanks were then loaded into a drying rack that resembled a small box car and which was suspended from an overhead track, like a train track. The track ran around the factory to the several work stations and through a long tunnel like oven.
The rack had twenty or so shelves to hold the coated blanks. When it was full, the rack was pushed into the oven which was about 100 feet long. A hook on a moving chain in the floor would catch the bottom of the rack and pull it through the oven, drying the paint.
When the paint was dry, the blanks would go to a work station where the design and wording were silk screened onto them, creating the signs. They were then loaded onto the racks and sent back through the oven to dry.
The first day I was on the job the foreman showed me around the plant and gave me my first task. Several of the drying racks were empty, hanging outside the oven entrance. They needed to be by the work stations on the other side of the oven. The foreman said to me,
“Run these racks through the oven and get back to me.”
Now, I have come to know that I process information very literally at times. This was one of them.
I grabbed hold of one of the racks and ran it deep into the oven. Got about 50 feet in when the paint fumes were so thick I could hardly breathe. I ran out, caught my breath, ran back in and moved the rack maybe 5 more feet. Bad fumes, and it was getting hot! I ran back out to catch my breath. I ran back in and tagged the rack, not moving it. I scorched my shoulder on the side of the oven which was starting to put out some serious heat. And, I thought to myself, “Jeez, if I have to do this all day I’m going to quit”.
Meanwhile the foreman came looking for me. He asked one of the guys “You seen that new kid anywhere?”
“Well, I saw him run into the oven“, was the reply.
He came hoofing it over to the oven in a trot just as I emerged from the opening. “What in the hell do you think you are doing!?!”
“Well I was trying to run the rack through the oven”.
He just looked at me.
The Paint Roller
My next assignment was to work at the paint rolling machine. One of the guys would feed the blanks through the roller coating them with paint. They would land on a conveyor belt and two of us would load them into the drying rack. Pretty uneventful.
About half an hour before quitting, we would start shutting down. This meant cleaning the paint rollers. This had to be done while the machine was running. We would wash the rollers with solvent saturated rags. It looked scary with the rollers turning rapidly. We were afraid of getting our hand caught in the rollers, but realized that couldn’t happen because the rollers moved in the same direction. However, as we cleaned the machine this first day something happened, like a quick jerk. My hand felt a sting and later that night my knuckle was swollen.
At the end of the next day, while cleaning the machine, one of the guys had a serious accident. The rag he was using got caught in the rollers of the conveyor belt, drawing his hand down through the two rollers which rolled inward together. It was the only part of the machine where that could happen. He stood there screaming as the machine tore away at his hand. It took more than a minute for us the find the machine’s shutoff switch. It was located about fifteen feet away on a pole on the far side of the machine. Once the machine was stopped we had to pry the rollers apart with a crow bar; there was no way to release them.
The fellow was sent home. No health insurance. Never saw him again.
During the three months I worked at the factory, there were nine men injured in exactly the same manner. I realized the reason my knuckle was swollen that day was that my rag had caught in the mechanism and jerked my hand down into the rollers, but my reflexes were so quick that I jerked my hand away without even knowing what happened.
The Green Grind
When the factory was reassembled there were three large metal vats installed, but not in the same sequence that they had been in Ohio. The metal sign blanks were cleaned of corrosion in the vats before being painted. One vat was filled with acid, a second with a base solution to neutralize the acid and a third with a rinse. That was the order in which the vats were to be placed: acid, base, rinse. But they were installed out of sequence and that caused a problem. The inside surface of the vats had a buildup chemical residue from the previous use. It was like a green crust inside the tubs. It had to be removed before new chemicals went into the vat. Otherwise, the residue would react with the chemicals and ruin the process.
So, the foreman took me to the vats and explained he wanted me to go into the vats and grind off the residue with an electric grinder. The grinder motor sat on the floor and the grinding head was attached to a flexible arm. Now, the vat was deeper than I am tall, by about 2 feet. I looked down into the vat and saw about 18 inches of green liquid at the bottom.
I looked at the guy incredulously. “You want me to climb down into the metal vat and put an electric motor into 18 inches of liquid and grind the walls clean. Are you outta your mind? That’s how people are electrocuted!”
“There’s noth’n to be worried by. That there motor is insulated.”
“Well, I’m not going to do it. No electric motor in a metal vat filled with liquid.”
After further discussion it was decided I would drain the vat dry before proceeding. He didn’t like that because it cost an extra day.
When I finally ground out the vat, I stood in the bottom of this container clouded in the green dust filling the air. At afternoon break I looked like the Green Hornet. My face, my clothes, my hair, everything . . . green. All night I was hacking and coughing up chunks of green sand like material.
The next day they gave me a respirator to use.
At the end of my time
During the time I worked there, 25% of the workers experienced a serious accident. That was in a three month period. When it was time to go back to school and leave employment I requested a meeting with the factory manager. I explained to him that I had found this an interesting period and, by and large, had enjoyed it. I went on to say, “I’m not going to be working here in the future, so it is not my issue. But I do have some suggestions. First, no one should be allowed to work on the machines until they have been taught how to turn them on and off. Second, the switches to the machines should be located near the machines”. I went on to say,”Nine people have been injured on the paint roller machine where the conveyor belt rollers pull inward. There is only one spot on the machine where this can happen. All you need to do to protect against this to put a metal plate over those two rollers and no one will be injured again.”
He thought about this for a moment and then said, “No, we can’t do that. Some of the signs are two sided and the plate would scratch the underside of the sign when it went over it.”
About eight months later I was talking with my Dad and he told me that several more workers were hurt on the machine. The company finally put a metal plate over the two rollers. The plate had a strip of felt on it so the signs would not be scratched.
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