Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

“My Life Pouring Concrete”

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Michael Humeniuk writes in Quillette:

The ritual was to arrive at work half an hour early, so I could gradually wake up in the car listening to the radio, drinking coffee, and eating doughnuts. I’d park my Honda Fit beside the site foreman’s pick-up truck. His morning pre-shift was like mine, except that his breakfast was vodka-soda with painkillers. Another two labourers usually arrived after I did: an irritable six-foot-three indigenous guy called by everyone, including himself, the “BFI,” which stood for “Big F-cking Indian”; and a cocaine-addled Italian who split “a gram or two with the wife” nightly, pairing it with a three-litre bottle of red wine. He claimed to sleep only two hours, which I never doubted, since he had to commute an hour to get on site at 6am. Of my colleagues, only the BFI always worked sober, having survived years of alcoholism (not to mention some prison time).

At age 20, I’d started my first week in construction, excavating a commercial space for a liquor store. The dark pits of freshly-dug soil gave the air a musty sweetness that stuck in the back of the throat. We’d spend 12-hour days digging trenches in the subterranean dark, and then fill them up with concrete. The ready mix splashed onto my skin and made my eyes burn, while men yelled monosyllabic instructions over the din of engines. The air smelled of diesel, with notes of liquid metal thanks to the welders. On break, we made our way outside, the only time we saw the sun, to immediately contaminate the fresh air with a round of cigarettes. True to stereotype, not one woman escaped our gaze. They were something to look at that wasn’t steel, dirt, dust, or rock.

This is how some men spend the majority of their lives.

I say “men” because, in my chosen subspecialty of concrete (whose ranks include those formally designated in the United States under the category of “cement masons, concrete finishers, and terrazzo workers”), the work force is 98.9 percent male. According to 2018 data (collected well before the COVID-19 pandemic), the average annual salary is about $42,000, significantly less than the national average of $54,000. In this industry, 50 is considered old. And working past 60 is almost unheard of. Most of the men I worked with had little formal education. Many had a criminal record. Men working in construction and extraction have the highest suicide rate of any industry, as well as the highest rate of opioid addiction, and (predictably) overdoses. Alcoholism rates are second only to the mining industry. It’s a rough crowd doing hard work. So you can see why employers might have difficulty addressing their gender imbalance.

Men work construction jobs because they need the money. But they also take pride in their daily work product, and the more general fact that they build and fix the concrete world that we all need. There’s usually a strong work ethic on display, too, even if it doesn’t always manifest itself as what many of us would describe as professionalism per se.

To the extent construction workers are discussed at all in the media or popular culture, it’s usually by reference to stereotypically negative attributes, such as sexist leering, foul language, and substance abuse. Unless you are embedded in this world, you’ll miss the offsetting positive aspects, including the unspoken code that exists among most crews: (1) Do the best work you can, without creating more work for others; (2) don’t shirk the dirtiest or hardest task; (3) obey your direct boss, but remain suspicious of authority more generally, especially when it walks on to the site with clean hands and nice shoes. (Young engineers tend to be particular objects of scorn); (4) never rat. If someone’s alcohol or drug problem is out of hand, let the supervisor address it. If your colleague gets fired because you blew the whistle, you may lose something more precious than a job.

While doing interviews for this article, two unionized municipal construction workers told me, off the record, “There are only two rules with Percocet: One, never talk about perkies. Two, do you have any?” The high level of opioid use among construction workers arises from the need to alleviate pain. Many workers freely offer stories about past accidents and the ensuing surgeries. In other cases, it’s a case of repetitive stress and bodily wear and tear, including slipped disks and rotator-cuff issues. Opioids are especially helpful for contract labourers who don’t have union protection or job benefits. Without work, they have no money, so they rely on pills to stay on site.

Eventually, of course, avoidance of withdrawal symptoms becomes the dominant priority. And one friend of mine fell off the workforce when he could no longer find a steady supply of pills. The symptoms of sudden abstinence, which often start with vomiting and diarrhoea, can sometimes be life-threatening. To save a colleague from unemployment, and possibly from falling into a deadly spiral, a few men relinquished some of their own pills as an act of charity, knowing the roles could be reversed one day.

On the sites I worked, Percocet went for between $3 and $5 per 5mg dose. The more potent 80 mg OxyContins went for $80. (The active ingredient in both is oxycodone.) Labourers are rarely prescribed enough by their doctors to feed their addictions, and so they buy or trade amongst one another. Some spend upward of $500 per week, and have to enter into informal buy-and-sell agreements, somewhat comparable to stock options . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 August 2020 at 4:42 pm

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