I remember about five years ago when fear of ergonomic stress injuries was all the rage. Somehow operating a computer in a clean, carpeted, dry, well-lighted 68-degree office had become the equivalent of operating a 50 caliber machine gun at a fire base in the Mekong Delta during the Tet Offensive. Evil corporate monsters were working their young assistants and administrators until they were physically and mentally broken and ready for the nursing home at age 22.
As I looked around at the injured arthritic bodies that have littered auto shops since the beginning of time, I wondered why no one worried about us? I guess it was a lot easier to sympathize with cute women with sore wrists than the ugly horned brutes who fix your cars. Now with a steady stream of soldiers coming back from the Middle East with terrible injuries that will never heal, and the awe-inspiring way they pick themselves up and keep going, both the ergonomic stress industry and my complaints seem, and indeed are, trivial. But I’ve got bills to pay, so here goes.
There probably aren’t a lot of reliable statistics about injuries in auto repair. Since most auto repair is done thankfully in small, non-union shops, no statistics are kept. We treat our own injured and bury our dead. What statistics would you keep and for what purpose? Joe had a sore back for a week after lying under the dashboard of a Taurus for nine hours changing the heater core. Would you sue auto manufacturers to make cars more ergonomically friendly to repair? (That thought should excite the trial lawyers.)
Cuts and burns are probably the most common source of pain in the shop. Everything about cars is awfully hot. You go to do an oil change on a 90-degree day on a car that has just been driven 45 minutes and things are going to be plenty hot. You develop a way to twist the drain bolt out and jerk your hand away in the same motion to avoid the cascade of scalding oil pouring out. Usually it misses you but sometimes it doesn’t.
If the manufacturer is nice, the oil filter will be in a perfectly vertical position, accessible from underneath the car so it can be spun off and on quickly and easily, with little or no oil spilled. But usually it’s in a tight spot at an absurd angle, requiring you to snake your hand and arm through a jumble of scorching-hot metal pipes with sharp pointy edges everywhere. Come to think of it, all the car makers could save a lot of money if they didn’t pay those union guys to sharpen all the sheet metal and put points an all the welds. And when you do get the filter off you will have no control over where the hot oil pours. And that’s just an oil change. We do complex repairs with drills and grinders and torches in extremely tight areas where one false move will damage the car or our bodies or both. I have drilled into my hand and watched blood and muscle tissue climb up the drill bit.
Do you know the difference between touching something hot and grabbing something hot? When you touch something hot you jerk away before any real damage is done. When you grab something hot your muscles are already squeezing your hand on it before your brain can give the command to pull away. A ten-day burn at least. Last week one of my mechanics got his signals crossed and turned a car’s windshield wipers on while the other guy’s hand was still in them. The gouge through his finger was an inch long and a quarter-inch deep. I once watched a pretty smart guy try to jump electricity to a power window motor with a paper clip and watched as it turned red and melted into his finger (ouch).
Even the ordinary bumps are worse than you imagine. If you bang your head on your armoire or your wall at home it will hurt, but there is quite a bit of give in both the wood of the furniture and the wall of your house. You don’t receive the full blow. But if you hit your head on the arm of a hoist made of thick treated steel, bolted to a concrete floor with a 4000-pound car on it, you receive the full blow and yes, you see stars. I see them at least twice a month.
The one plus to our work is, regardless of the scope of the injury, mechanics (at least real ones) never get infections. This is because the daily chemical bath we expose our skin to of hot oil, antifreeze, carburetor cleaner, and brake cleaning fluid (which if you don’t know, is the same as dry cleaning fluid), will kill any and all ordinary germs and microbes, and has been known to cause stampedes among Ebola viruses. The downside is we spend our days on concrete floors which are hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and hard on the bones all year round. And we will probably all die prematurely of some type of cancer. In spite of our best efforts, the lighting in the shop is never quite adequate and the noise is deafening. I’d probably go on whining forever, but fortunately, at least several times a week, a soldier in uniform walks in and I realize I’ve got it pretty good.