Somewhere east of Laverton in the early 2000’s. It’s mid-forties, possibly nudging fifty degrees. The hot air going into my lungs feels like a flame and I keep my breathing shallow. There’s thunder clouds on the horizon so there must some humidity about but when it gets this hot the sweat evaporates from your skin like droplets on a tin roof; even inside my clothes it’s bone dry.
I’m coping by staying as still as a meditating monk, how the driller and two offsiders are keeping up their brutal tempo is beyond me. The machine is hammering; choking, chalky white dust is everywhere and there are flies trying to crawl into every orifice in my body. ‘Religious people shouldn’t worry about going to hell’ I say to myself. ‘They should just come out here.’
I’m standing beside the driller, doing the essential but tedious part of assessing any job – just watching. Some of the best insights that’ve formed the body of knowledge in Strong Spine have come from just that: not measuring, testing or collecting data but observing the day to day movements of people earning a living.
The driller is having a conversation with himself, the drill, somebody, I’m not sure. It’s too loud to hear what he’s saying and the monologue certainly isn’t directed at me. Eventually he hits the lever though and the drill stops. This far out in the mulga country on the edge of the desert the sudden silence is stunning.
The two offsiders have seen this before. They exchange a nod, grab a can of tinned fruit each and find an upturned bucket to sit on.
The driller turned to me. ‘Do you wanna know what that #$%&n bitch said to me last night?’
It’s not as if I had a choice. So I gave a sympathetic nod and for the next 30 minutes listened to one of the unhappiest stories I’ve heard. It was the full FIFO nightmare: meets a girl on a trip home, sees her every time he’s back, gets the phone call ‘I’m pregnant, shacks-up, another baby, a house, feels like an imposter every time he goes home, kids treat him as an irritation not a parent, she uses a baby-sitter a lot when he’s not there, signs of another guy around the house, goes in to town after 13 brutal days’ work and checks to find an empty bank account; still paycheck-to-paycheck after 4 years of FIFO and he wonders what the bloody hell he’s doing it all for…and that’s just his side of the story.
I’ve had no formal training in counselling but one can’t help pick-up a trick or two over years of bearing witness to people trying to make a life with chronic pain…and not all chronic pain is in the body. So I just reflected and listened as best I could until he vented enough to feel like kicking the drill up again – those meters weren’t going to drill themselves after all.
But there’s a big lesson in this.
Sit around with a conference table full of health and safety professionals and the stories will start. These stories all have the same punchline – how stupid people are. How all the behavioral tricks and safeguards in the world won’t stop peoples innate capacity to be stunningly dumb. But are they stupid really? Do we really understand how little of themselves people are bringing through the gate some days? How much of their thinking is being taken up by issues from home? I wonder.
A manual handling program will never solve this and we don’t pretend that ours does. Yet when people call Strong Spine a ‘behavioral’ program, we correct them. It’s a mindfulness program -it’s about showing people how to keep an awareness of their body while they work.