Sunday, January 20, 2008

Story Time Again

After inundating you with pictures the last few days, I thought my post for today would be another of my stories from "Painting to Learn", a collection of work related experiences and the lessons I have learned from them.

Give Me a Break ( Hazards on the job)

When a painting contractor sets up his business and applies for Worker's Compensation, or disability insurance, or accident insurance, he is often surprised at the rate bracket that he finds himself in. I suppose this is due to the fact that painters are often working from ladders or scaffolding. Anytime a worker is off the ground, he is subject to gravity and not surprisingly, many painters have fallen and injured themselves.
In order to prevent climbing up and down the ladder too often, a painter will have a tool called an extension pole. This is a metal or fibreglass telescopic pole that fastens to the end of his roller cage and in effect extends his reach by as much as 20 feet. And herein lies the problem. When the front end of the pole comes down to enable the roller to be loaded in the paint tray, the back end of the pole goes up and on occasion has touched high tension power lines. The resulting electrocution tends to raise the insurance rates for all painters, not just the newly scorched one.
This is the problem with the categories that one is fitted into. There is no consideration of the fact some of us do not even have a metal extension pole. In their industry, a painter = extension pole = electrocution = high rates for all painters.
In spite of the absence of a pole, I have managed to inflict pain and injury on myself a few times over the years. However, I have never made an insurance claim.
My first painful fall actually was a painting accident before I became a painter. My father was a house builder and he asked me to paint a portion of one of his houses that was too high for him. He was afraid of heights. But so was I. It must be genetic. But I was younger, and was eager to please, so up I climbed and before I knew it, down I fell. The planking and the supports were haphazardly thrown together and someone called it a scaffold. The supports were in soft soil and the whole situation was an accident waiting to happen.
I had a good scare, and there is something about young men that prevents them from getting injured too easily. It is the opposite of what old men have that cause injuries so easily. But if I thought that fall was frightening, I had a worse one in store. Or at least a potential fall.
I was at the end of a fully extended 24 ft. aluminium extension ladder, painting the trim boards on the gable end of a house. The roof was tar and gravel so the flashing on the edge of the roof was galvanized metal. So picture a metal ladder, fully extended, leaning on a sloped metal surface, with the legs of the ladder placed in soft dirt. Now, add to the mix, a stiff breeze, and a painter reaching as far to the side as possible to prevent moving the ladder too often. I felt the ladder starting to slide and the coppery taste of adrenaline filled my mouth and throat. With a brush in one hand and a pail of paint in the other, I had no hands left with which to grab the roof line to stop the sliding. I dropped the brush and pail, reached up and away from the direction of the fall and grabbed the metal edge of the roof. The ladder was being beckoned by gravity and continued for a short while on its downward journey and it was only my right foot hooked onto one of the rungs that prevented it falling all the way to the
ground. Now I am hanging from the edge of the roof, one leg dangling, and the other one gingerly coaxing the ladder back into an upright position. Just when I thought my arms would give out, I managed to put my weight back on the ladder and I weakly climbed down to the good solid earth.
I remember not even bothering to clean up the paint spill and the brush, but got in my vehicle and slowly drove home. I was good for nothing for the rest of the day.
I recall only one other time when I had to quit for the day because of fear and a weakness that spread through my body like a drug.
I was painting the exterior of a row house and was on a small roof which protected a bank of electrical meters. It was the power inlet for 10 housing units in a large complex of senior's housing. I had to reach around a bundle of electrical cables and I had noticed that the connections were all protected by many strands of electrical tape. I was going to stay well back in any event. There was one small area left to get at and I had to stretch and crane my shoulder and neck to reach it. I lightly brushed one of the high voltage cables and a mild buzzing and a warm numbing feeling ran through my cheek and down my neck. I dropped the paint brush because I had no control of my hand. As I did that, I automatically withdrew my face from the vicinity of the cable and the feeling passed as quickly as it had come. But my body felt weak and tired and actually I could not even climb down from the roof for about ten minutes. I checked out the cable where my cheek had touched the backside and there was some raw cable exposed where the electrical tape had come loose. Had I made full contact, I would have been one of those toasted painters, and I don't even own a metal extension pole.
The only sudden injury I ever suffered on the job happened when I was hanging wallpaper. The customer saw that she had ordered too much wallpaper and asked if I could paper the front entry closet for her. No problem. It had a built in shelf unit and was a little hard to work around. Needless to say, I could not fit my step ladder into the small space so I stood on a 5 gallon pail, which fit nicely in the doorway of the closet. The pail was on carpet, and was slightly narrower on the bottom than the top and while trying to reach the far corners of the closet ceiling, my centre of gravity positioned itself in such a way as to tilt the pail. I felt it going over so I thought,” No problem, I will just step down."
Falling to the right meant I had to step to the right and just where my foot should land, due to my speed and trajectory, was a tray of wallpaper glue. To avoid the glue tray, I positioned my foot to come a little too close to my pail and as I landed, I felt myself going over. I could not brace myself with my other foot as it would also then land in the glue. I should have opted for a sticky foot. I crashed to the floor and landed on my right shoulder and I distinctly heard a loud pop. I picked myself up, glad I did not have to clean up a glue spill and continued working, feeling quite sore in the shoulder but thinking I could work through the pain. About 20 minutes later, the
shoulder was seized up tight and hurting worse than anything I could remember. I do not recall cleaning up or finishing the job although I must have at some time, but I do remember being off work for several weeks and for many years after, feeling the effects of a dislocated shoulder. I worked for that customer again many years later and she had no recollection of the incident. Of course, it was not her shoulder that hurt.
There are of course, many smaller and almost daily hazards on the job. For instance, when hanging wallpaper, there is always a razor sharp knife at hand. The cuts and slashes on various parts of my body are too numerous to recall. Because the knives are so sharp, I would usually not be aware of another cut until I noticed the blood, on the wallpaper, on my clothes, on the floor, or dripping off the end of my sliced finger. A first aid kit was a standard supply in my tool kit.
Another common occurrence while hanging wallpaper was electrical shock. The water in the wallpaper was an excellent conductor around switches and electrical outlets. I sometimes would feel a buzzing on the wall quite a ways away from the source of power. Cutting the paper around the switches always presented a hazard when my knife would protrude too far into the box and make contact with a hot wire. Those were good jolts and would usually knock the knife right out of my hand. Somehow, knowing it would not kill me, made it less of a threat so I would never turn the power off.
Only once did I injure someone else on the job. It was a wallpaper job and all was going well, only hours more to go and the paper would all be hung. I always wore pants with multiple pockets to hold all the tools I needed. My 4 inch broad knife was in my back pocket where I always keep it, handle down. It is the same knife I had been using for many years and the edge was worn to razor sharpness. I would hold the edge of the knife against the wallpaper in the corner where it met the ceiling or door frame and run the cutting blade down it, using it as a perfect guide. I was in a narrow hallway and I was crouched down, placing the piece of wet wallpaper against the baseboard when one of the small boys who lived in the house came running down the hall. I was blocking the way to his room and he was in a hurry to get something so he shouted "Don't move." and proceeded to jump over my hunched figure.
I thought nothing of it until I saw him crouched down in his room, seeming to be in a bit of distress. He began to moan and I asked what the trouble was. He was holding his leg and would not let go. He began to cry and I was getting very concerned as I gently pried his hands away from his knee. You can imagine my shock and amazement when the damage was revealed. His leg had been laid open just below the knee and the skin was gaping open, revealing the pure white of bone. I immediately knew how it had happened and marvelled at the fact that there was no blood. It was a clean cut and had somehow missed all the arteries. I called for his mother as I carried him to the bathroom, grabbed a clean towel and soaked it in cold water. I pressed the wet towel gently against the gash and by this time the blood was beginning to show. His mother arrived, and very calmly took a look, asked me to carry him to her van, and followed me out of the house. I held him on my lap as she drove to the hospital. She was a career emergency room nurse and her calmness reassured me greatly. By the time we arrived at the emergency ward, the towel was soaked with red. He was cared for immediately and twenty stitches later, we were back home. When we arrived back at the house, I thought of something to break the tension. I rolled up my right pant leg and showed the boy a long scar in exactly the same place his would be. He was fascinated but I assured him that his scar would not be as big and wormy as mine. His stitches were very fine and the doctor did a wonderful stitching job. When I was exactly his age, I was running through the bushes with my friends when I stumbled and fell. It was only minutes later that I realized something was amiss. My foot was squishing in my shoe and when I looked down, saw my pant leg soaked in blood. I ran home and my mother rushed me to the hospital which was directly behind our house. My cut had severed an artery and was quite serious. The doctor was not so careful about the stitches and left me with a large souvenir. I retraced my steps the next day and found the source of my cut. A jagged bottom end of a broken beer bottle.
Whenever we look at our scars, we will always think of each other.
The last injury to mention is the one that happens to all people who do repetitive work all their lives. It is called injury, but it is really wear and tear. With me and many in my profession, it is the neck and shoulders. Working with hands above the head, and face looking upwards most of the time, takes its toll over the years. The knees also are susceptible from extensive bending, squatting, and crawling. But for me it has definitely been the neck that has worn out to the greatest degree. After 25 years, I finally came to the conclusion that I could no longer paint ceilings and I began contracting them out. It has meant losing a number of jobs along the way, however. Either the customer does not want to deal with more than one painter, or the ceiling component of the price is too expensive and my services for the rest of the job are turned down. I found myself, more than once, trying to talk a customer into the fact that his ceilings were not that bad and would probably last a few more years before they needed cleaning up.
Staying away from painting ceilings still meant that I had to paint crown mouldings, trim along the ceiling, and hang wallpaper borders along the ceilings. These activities were just as hard on my neck. I tried various comforts and remedies over the years but nothing really worked. When the cartilage is gone, it is gone. I used heat, cold, vibrators, massages, ointments, liniments, stretching exercises, chiropractic treatment, ultrasound treatments, special pillows, special mattresses and recently, reflexology. When one of the chiropractors I was seeing asked me how long it would take my hand to heal if I slammed it in the car door everyday, I knew I was in this thing for the long haul.
I went to a medical supply store one day to buy a neck brace. The clerk handed me one and asked me to try it on. My purpose for buying it was to provide a support for the back of my head when I looked upward. When I put it on, I put the notch, designed for the chin, at the back of my head and found it actually quite comfortable. The clerk told me I was wearing it backwards and when I explained why I was wearing it the way I was, she broke into hysterical laughter. She had never heard of anything so funny and had to run to the back of the store to tell the manger. It was apparent she had not gotten over it when she handed me change from a $20 bill for a $12 purchase. I counted it and it came to $22! After having been laughed at in such an ego bruising way, I almost walked out of the store with my bonus. I still wear the brace the odd time in the evening and I still wear it backwards.
I have learned that our youth passes quickly and with it the strength and agility most of us are born with. We must protect our bodies, not when they begin to wear out, but before the symptoms become apparent. That means good quality kneepads, hearing protection, safety equipment, and good risk management. It is called prevention, something most of us consider important only when it is too late.


helga said...

gosh, and i thought painting was a relatively safe job!!

Terry said...

Maybe when YOU do it!

carla said...

Who'd a known?

I gained a new respect for all painter persons when I had to paint my baseboards, not twice, but 5 times, due to a certain paint store's tinting issues. I thought I would die before I was done.