Killing time

Plant now has moment of silence for fallen workers at lunch break


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Last year, a janitor in my plant’s paint shop slipped into a narrow gap in the floor that holds all the chains that move the assembly line. NBefore anyone could hit a red button to stop the line, the chains had torn off his foot, with the calf muscle thrown in for good measure.

When they extracted him from the line, all that was left below the knee were his shinbones, and blood everywhere. The gaps in the floor were closed up after that spectacularly gory accident.

Better late than never.

SKD, a metalworking facility here, took the life of union leader Bud Jimmerfield a year and a half ago. In the 60s and 70s, the lubricating fluids used to cut metal would spray workers like Bud in the face while they bored holes.

It wasn’t until years later that anyone realized that inhaling the oily mist filled your larynx with tumours. Bud wasn’t the only SKD employee to get sick, just the most prominent.


Plant silence

On April 28, the minivan plant, like many in Canada, observes a minute of silence to commemorate all the victims of dangerous work. The day is something of an event down here in Windsor, with a mass, a laying of flowers at a public monument and other events.

Walking through the plant gates on Friday morning, I noticed the company memo. It told us that the line would be stopped for a moment of silence at 11:48 in the morning. That’s lunchtime in almost all departments.

Nice.

I don’t really mind giving up one minute of my 24 lunch minutes to quietly reflect on those who have died trying to provide for their families. Nevertheless, I think it’s chintzy as hell that the one minute could not come out of production time

What’s it worth to a company to remember workers who have been killed or maimed by their jobs? A minute, evidently, is too much.

Time is a commodity that has even more value than money in a manufacturing environment. When something stops the assembly line, you can get a rough idea of where the problem started by looking for the sea of blue-shirted managers engaging in a collective shit fit.

If the problem originates with you and you hit a red button to stop the line, expect a blue-shirted inquisition that would make Torquemada wince.

Lots of things go wrong in the manufacture of automobiles, so everyone’s had to stop the line at some point in their career. Everyone has also heard some supervisor say: “For every minute the line is down, the company loses (insert exorbitant dollar figure here).” When my turn came to hear how much my minute had cost the company, the sum quoted was $40,000.

I wasn’t astonished by the number. What killed me was that a story I’d pegged as urban folklore was, in fact, true. My reply simply echoed what everyone else told me they’d said when confronted with this load of hooey: “Oh, well. It comes out of your bonus, not mine.”

Since time trumps money on an assembly line, it’s measured out like units of currency. The basic unit is six minutes, or one-10th of an hour. That’s why starting and quitting times on the morning shift are 7:48 and 3:18 respectively.


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Our breaks are 12, 24 and 9 minutes long. At the same time, the company is constantly trying to find ways to reduce the amount of time workers have to themselves while the line is moving.

If you’re unfortunate enough to have an insufficient amount of work on your job — that is, time spent actually putting things on the product you are making — you can rest assured that management will find some way to remedy the situation.

Not surprisingly, time is something that companies like to dicker over during contract negotiations. The contract that netted our plant a third shift saw workers give up about 24 minutes of break time to secure 1,500 new jobs.

Some old-timers still grumble about it. Personally, I keep my trap shut. I was one of the 1,500 people who got hired.

It’s one thing for your boss to be flinty with the minutes and seconds, but is a little respect too much to ask for? It probably sounds corny, but there’s something dramatic and significant about deliberately stopping production for a moment to reflect. Is that minute going to break the bank?

Just in case you’re wondering, my employer, DaimlerChrysler, just reported quarterly profits of $1.621 billion.

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