Oil spills and trapped miners add perspective to your job

Sept. 13, 2010
Paul Studebaker, CMRP, explores hellish work environments.

From the Midwest to the eastern seaboard, the summer of 2010 has been the hottest and most humid in 20 to 60 years, depending on your location. Here in Chicago, we had the longest string of 80° or above temperatures since 1955. I know that’s nothing compared to a regular southern summer, but crawling through the many road construction zones — with the windows open, because unlike me, my A/C is taking a vacation — I have to sympathize with the workers getting it done under these conditions. And I can’t help but notice that, as a group, we’re not getting any younger or thinner.

But we do have more gizmos and gadgets — manlifts and slings let us access difficult locations with relative ease. Supports and braces allow us to work comfortably in odd positions. Sophisticated “zero gravity” fixtures inspired by the movie industry’s steady-camera technology can hold heavy tools for precise work at arm’s reach.

Thanks to this summer’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill, I’ve learned more than I ever imagined I would about working at the bottom of the ocean. At the near-freezing temperatures and 2,400 psi water pressure a mile under the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) serve as workers’ eyes and hands. The originals were developed by the military to recover unspent munitions, aircraft black boxes and sensitive items, including an H-bomb accidentally dropped from a B-52 during a mid-air refueling accident in 1966.


Now subsea equipment is designed specifically for operation by machines. Operators can preprogram an ROV to park at a designated spot, anchor itself by gripping framework and reach out to adjust a set of valve handles designed to be gripped by its high-torque, rotating claws.

Meanwhile, about 2,300 feet below the surface of Copiapo, Chile, 33 workers trapped for 17 days before they were located and found to be alive might have to survive another four months on sustenance piped to them through a 6-inch borehole while rescuers dig a shaft large enough to bring them up to the surface.

Sanitation immediately comes to mind, but sanity also is a major concern. The Chicago Tribune reports that the men already have been trapped underground longer than all but a few miners rescued in recent history. Last year, three miners survived 25 days trapped in a flooded mine in southern China, and two miners in northeastern China were rescued after 23 days in 1983. Few other rescues have taken more than two weeks.

The miners' survival after 17 days is unusual, but because they've made it this far, they should emerge physically fine, Davitt McAteer, former assistant secretary for mine safety and health at the U.S. Labor Department, told the Tribune. But the stress of being trapped underground for a long period of time can be significant. "There’s a psychological pattern there that we've looked at," said McAteer. But "they've established communication with the guys; there are people who can talk them through that."

Up here on the surface, the economy grows while employment stagnates. Factory and office staffs work harder and longer to increase production while skittish executives sit on their cash or use it for acquisitions, leading to another kind of survivors’ stress.

In the Middle East, combat troops are now officially withdrawn from Iraq, or renamed “advise and assist brigades.” We are thankful, but it’s not clear how many will actually come home, what opportunities they’ll have here, or how long before they’re redeployed to Afghanistan. Or Iran.

All in all, it’s not so bad to be stuck in traffic on a hot summer day, even without A/C.

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