Karen Swartz, 12/12/2011
Current Occupation: Business Analyst in the health care industry
Former Occupation: Environmental Engineer, Laboratory Technician, Grocery Bagger
Contact Information: By the time Karen Swartz was 18 years old she had lived in 10 different places all over the United States. She settled in Middletown Connecticut which has been her home for 12 years, and she is planning to stay put. Karen is an active volunteer for arts and environmental organizations and she is a reporter for the online news blog The Middletown Eye, which is run completely by volunteers as a community service.
The air was thick with dust and dirt. Grains of sand pelted the side of my face and grit crunched between my teeth. My heart was racing. I was very disoriented. I put my hands up over my head and pulled my yellow hard hat down tight. I was sure that the drill rig behind me had toppled over, the hammer at the top of the 50-foot tower having slammed into the ground. When I looked at the rig, it appeared horizontal, as if it were at the wrong angle. I might have thought the rig was at a different angle because I myself was at a different angle, lying on the ground having fallen. I don’t remember if I fell; it happened so fast.
In reality, the rig remained upright. A high-pressure hose similar to a fire hose had become disconnected and had flung about ten yards to where I’d been standing, recording the day’s drilling progress in the yellow waterproof log book. My co-worker, always trying to make light of our intense and demanding work situations, laughed later about how the notes in the field log book stopped abruptly, a stray line crossing the page diagonally from it’s starting point in the middle of the word I’d been writing when I was hit. When the metal clamp that held hose lengths together forcefully smashed into my leg, I did not see or feel it coming at all. Simultaneously, there seemed to be a roaring cacophony and an absence of sound. The earplugs that I had in as usual to block out the noise of the drill rig and the busy street probably contributed to my sonic confusion.
I had recently earned my engineering degree and I was working for an environmental consulting company. Much of the work was on sites that had long ago been manufactured gas plants, where gas was made out of coal in the 1800s and early 1900s. The process to create gas from coal was industrial and messy. Byproducts were carcinogenic. The waste was left in tanks and buried underground when the plants were decommissioned throughout the first half of the twentieth century. These plant sites are all over the United States, in big cities and small towns. My coworkers and I spent a lot of time traveling to and working on field jobs, where we would oversee the drilling of boreholes into the ground with huge rigs, install groundwater monitoring wells, and collect samples of soil and water that we sent off to laboratories to be analyzed. Back at the office, we’d compile the data, compare it against regulatory criteria, and write site characterization reports that were submitted to local and state regulatory agencies. Once one round of field work and reporting was completed, there always seemed to be another phase waiting to be started. These characterizations and investigations could go on for years, decades even.
The job site was a public park in a small town just north of Philadelphia. The park was nothing more than a big grass field in a residential area, bordered by a wooded creek on one side and busy streets on the other three. Most of the visitors to the park were local residents walking their dogs. They were very inquisitive about what we were doing, and not afraid to approach us and ask. On some of our sites, especially the ones in more urban areas, passersby regarded us with suspicion, and approached less often, and then reluctantly.
Working on this particular site was pleasant, because there was a family-run deli just down the street where we could get a quick lunch, and it was easy to get our van full of equipment in and out. So much of our time was spent traveling and on various sites, there developed an ever-evolving informal rating system that made for easy conversation during long drives with virtual strangers. How close was the hotel to the job site? How many decent and interesting restaurants near the hotel? Was there a hardware store nearby for the inevitable odd tool that would be needed? What’s the bathroom situation on the site? These were the types of things that were important to us.
There were four people working onsite; myself, my coworker John, who worked at the consulting company with me and was the Project Manager, and the drill rig operator and the driller’s assistant, who were subcontracted from a local environmental drilling company. The drill rig operator was named Jeff. He was a tall, large man with piercing blue eyes, thinning black hair, and pale skin. He wore the same threadbare dark blue coveralls over his clothes every day. He spoke in a thick New Jersey accent about how this job site was one of the most stressful ones he’d worked on, due to all the unexpected obstacles we continually encountered. He talked about how his wife had worried about him since he’d been working this site, because he hadn’t been eating or sleeping well. He spoke about his teenage daughter and how he wanted to be able to buy her name-brand clothes for Christmas. His hands shook when he talked about these things. The driller’s assistant, Mike, had pock marked skin and long, shaggy hair that seemed to place him square in 1977. He was quiet in a thoughtful way. He pulled a banana out of his work coveralls every day at about 9:30 a.m. and ate it methodically. At about 11:45 a.m., out came a peanut butter sandwich in a foldover-style thin plastic bag, the kind that was the only type of sandwich bag available before zipper bags were invented. Mike would squat down low to the ground, resting on his haunches as he ate his regimented snacks, eyes on the drilling augur the entire time.
This particular day was a crisp, early fall day. The day before, the drillers had installed a piece of equipment called a cyclone that was meant to vacuum up the drill cuttings from the borehole and spill them directly into the dumpster, which we called a rolloff. Typically the soil that came up as drill cuttings was shoveled manually into the rolloff. During this job, we had to drill deeper than planned, there was more soil than expected, shoveling became too laborious, and the cyclone was introduced as a way to try to make the job more efficient. The cyclone looked like a giant human heart, except it was hollow to allow the soil to flow through it. It was about four feet long and two feet wide and made out of cast iron. The inlets and outlets were hooked up to hoses, the same kind that you’d see on a fire truck, with big metal clamps on the ends. In order to operate, these hoses were pressurized. Either there was too much pressure in the lines, or the connections were not fitted tightly enough, or both. I’d been hit hard, and it hurt.
The shouts of my co-worker brought me out of my torpor.
“The cyclone broke! Can you walk?”
At first, I impulsively answered no, but then I hobbled a few steps, and it was clear that I would be able to limp away. I sensed gratitude from muscular and athletic John, who had offered to carry me out, and was visibly relieved that was not necessary. This was probably both in avoidance of an awkward intimacy between us, and also because it meant that I was only injured and not terribly maimed.
John dropped me off at the local hospital’s emergency department. While sitting in the waiting area, the same two thoughts kept repeating over and over in my head. I found these thoughts funny, and I kept loudly shouting “ha!” every few minutes. I was still disoriented from the accident. There was no humor in the repeating loop in my head, but I needed to feel something other than fear, and I was instinctively trying to force myself out of terror mode. When the panic-driven fear of the moment had subsided, I was left with a deeper question about my future in a job that could hurt me, damage my psyche, make me age too quickly.
When I returned back to the job site, Jeff pointed a thick finger at me and said fiercely, “I wanna see you running across this site!”
This was his way of apologizing to me, telling me that he felt responsible for the accident.
As much as he wanted absolution from the guilt he was feeling that he may have caused my injury, I wanted to be able to give it to him. My leg was badly hurt, but there was no serious or permanent damage expected. I did not say anything in reply. I looked him in the eye and nodded, an unspoken pact between us.
It took a few weeks before I could walk without limping, and when the time was right, I was happy to oblige, ecstatic, truly, that that the hose clamp had hit my thigh, rather than a few inches higher, my hip, or a few inches lower, my knee. Muscle trauma was bearable, a joint injury might have been debilitating. I trotted across the site when I knew he’d see. It wasn’t exactly a subconscious action, but it felt involuntary, necessary. The bruise was about four inches long and three inches wide, and it lasted for six months. The purple skin could not be denied, but I was incredulous that it was possible for a bruise to remain visible and tender for so long. I was reassured when this came up in a conversation with some ice hockey players; they helped me understand that this type of hematoma does last for many months. Those lumps I could feel under the skin were normal, nothing to worry about, they said.
I went on to experience two more on-the-job injuries in the next six months, one of them fairly serious, though I never missed a day of work. The injuries were badges of honor; stories to swap over dinner after long days under hot sun or in bitter cold winds. There were so many incidents, the stories never ran out, and we never got bored of them. There were car crashes, frostbitten feet, chemical burns, an acetylene tank fire, a structure fire, dehydration, hypothermia, poison ivy. These mishaps and episodes connected our physical being with our work, and solidified our identities as geologists, engineers, scientists. Our work set us apart. The accountants back in the office insisted that we tape our receipts to our expense reports just so, and questioned us with disbelief when we called in to report our hours at just over seventy for the week. These were details that we felt would not be asked of us, if the accounting staff ever had to spend one day out in the field doing what we did. The human resource representative listened to us vent with sympathetic nods, and then reminded us that we had to make time for our annual physical exams. We felt undervalued, and sometimes misunderstood.
There was a deep-seated sense of irony that was mutually felt, but rarely discussed. In the interest of working for the betterment of the environment, we were putting our own personal health in jeopardy. It was easy to bury the pain when the work itself was consuming. One of our tools for doing that was saying a common refrain, “It’s all just a part of the job”. This was something that we mumbled to ourselves when standing out in the rain all day, or when eating energy bars and soda for our meals because that’s all there was time for. We used it as a retort when a friend or relative would ask pointedly after hearing a description of our work,
“Aren’t you scared?”
There were certainly moments of fear, but we did not walk around in a constant state of anxiety over what might happen next. It was expected that there would be moments of fear, we were being realistic in saying it, it truly was just a part of the job.
After a decade, I did eventually feel that it was time for a change. I became a business analyst, working corporate weekday hours, a job as mundane as it gets, with evenings and weekends free to focus on non-work pursuits. I now stare at numbers in spreadsheets, I create graphs and charts and presentations. Physical hazards haven’t been eliminated, they’re just different. Neck and shoulder pain from hunching over the keyboard, eye strain from too much time staring at the computer monitor – typical side effects of a desk job. Sometimes, when I’ve exhausted my ability to manipulate data, my mind wanders. Scenes flash through my head. A drill rig sputtering and groaning to life at 7 a.m., clouds of diesel exhaust fumes billowing out of it. A backhoe clawing and tearing at the ground, dinosaur-like. A group of leathery men in hard hats, dirty jeans, and orange safety vests standing around a food truck drinking watered down coffee from disposable styrofoam cups at mid-morning break. American flags waving from the tops of crane masts. I remember these scenes and I smile, blink, stand up and stretch, and turn back to my screen.