The Price Of Progress:
Safety Then And Now


My grandfather’s old antique lawnmower is unkillable.

As a card-carrying man, I have little use for safety stuff. I have an antique lawn mower I inherited from my grandfather. Everything on it is pressed steel, and there are no extraneous safety gadgets. It is unkillable. I mean, even though it is 30 years old, that thing simply will not die. It is an indestructible, immortal grass-cutting miracle machine.

By contrast, modern lawnmowers are mostly plastic and include 75 different guards and safety interlocks, all designed to keep American males from doing stupid things … like cutting their grass. Believe it or not, I would have shut the mower off before reaching my hand into it anyway. Apparently, however, not everybody looks at life as I do.

In ages past, there were not so many trial attorneys, and OSHA was just some nonsensical collection of random letters. I often look back longingly to those hallowed days. I must admit, however, that things were somewhat more dangerous back then.

Sawmills of yesteryear were incredibly dangerous.

Example 1

One of my grandfathers worked in a sawmill back during the Great Depression. Those who had work generally did okay. Those that didn’t ran a legitimate risk of starvation. It was simply that not a whole lot of folks had work. In the sawmill where my grandfather toiled, they had multiple machines all powered by a single big honking engine.

This was a fairly sizable place, so the technical problem was how to get that mechanical energy from its source, something steam driven I presume, to the individual machines. The solution was a series of drive shafts that traversed the space on mechanical hanger bearings oriented perhaps a foot off the floor. A short belt drive then ran from the shaft to the individual machines on the far end. To traverse the workspace, one carefully stepped over the rapidly spinning shafts.

One of my grandfather’s coworkers was walking across the shop when his pants leg brushed one of the drive shafts. This particular shaft had a prominent setscrew that grabbed the cloth of his heavy denim trousers. By the time they got the power shut down, the poor man was irretrievably wrapped around the shaft. He was killed instantly.

My grandfather’s old cotton gin looked just like this one in Texas.
Photo by Jim Evans.

Example 2

My other grandfather owned a partial interest in a cotton gin back in the 1950s. The gin employed several local laborers and sported whirling machines aplenty. The standard uniform was bib overalls. As this was the Mississippi Delta, the place was forever hot.

I spent a little time in my grandfather’s gin as a wee lad. It was the evolutionary descendent of Eli Whitney’s inimitably inspired original. Steel spindles whirred about stripping cotton fibers from the seed. For an impressionable kid, it was all frankly terrifying up close. I recall a great deal of munching and grinding.

One of my grandfather’s employees crawled up on the running gin to rectify some problem or other. He naturally neglected to shut the thing down before mounting it. This was but a minor tweak and wouldn’t take a moment. That and he was a man.

You know what happened next? The edge of his pants leg also brushed part of the machine and got pulled into the gin. In this case, the man reacted instantly and latched onto a steel pole literally for dear life. The machine proceeded to rip his clothes off, demonstrating graphically to all involved his apparent disdain for underwear. The terrified man was rendered publicly naked but was otherwise unhurt.

Example 3

That same grandfather later took a job at an oil mill that produced cottonseed oil. Huge hopper trucks driven by local characters rolled into the facility to drop off seed for processing. One of the young drivers had an inexplicable aversion to bathing.

It was the cool part of the year, but this guy still reeked something awful. His coworkers avoided him. When required to be up close, they admonished him fervently to take a bath. Some helpfully brought him soap and offered the use of their facilities if needed. Throughout it all, as near as they could tell, this weird guy just liked being dirty.

Eventually, his comrades could stand it no longer. There was a modest pond on the facility that served some industrial purpose or other. The water contained therein was not drinkable, but it wasn’t industrial waste, either. This guy’s buddies dragged the poor man out of his truck and threw him into the pond along with a bar of soap. Humiliated, he duly stripped down, soaped up, rinsed off, and got dressed. Everyone in the facility was pleased with the final result. The following week, this strange man inexplicably contracted pneumonia and died.

Sometimes, it seems that our government’s sole raison d’etre is to place impediments in our paths to progress. Everything, everywhere, seems to be somehow government-regulated these days. However, there was a time when this was not the case. I have to admit that, in certain narrow circumstances, those were not necessarily the good old days.

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