construction


In my time working on construction crews in Oregon, one persistent joke was, upon reading the ubiquitous warning “known to cause cancer in the state of California” on a material we were about to use, was announcing, “good thing we’re not in California!” Everyone would laugh and then go ahead using the pressure-treated lumber, or whatever it was, as usual. I was generally alone in taking precautions in these situations, and actually caught significant flack for being paranoid and/or anal retentive. This was not improved by my careful explanation that California was where the lawsuits and legal actions happened which resulted in these warnings, not where the cancer cases were confined!

The bottom line was that precautions (not to mention using less toxic materials) slow down the process for bosses and often seem unnecessary to the crew, so they were not taken. Many of the crew reasoned that since they already smoked and drank, how much could inhaling some fume or touching some chemical really increase their chances of getting cancer?

This was frustrating to hear but is actually an excellent point. Without information about base rates, how can we make good decisions about toxicity exposure? We need specificity and statistics to make good decisions.

For example, Reanna pointed this sign out to me last night:

It is posted on the side of the RV we have been living in during our renovation project. Of what use is this supposed to be? If I was on the fence about whether or not to buy an RV this might be somewhat helpful, but only by increasing a vague sense of fear, possibly to the point that I wouldn’t make the purchase. I want to know by doing what (driving it? sitting in it? licking the walls?) for how long (minutes? years?) and in what circumstances (engine running? after the RV’s a certain age? at certain temperatures?) will increase my chance of developing what cancer by what statistical rate? With that information, I could make a decent decision about how to interact with this RV. Or construction material.

It’s unfortunately true that construction worker and RV buyers (as well as doctors, lawyers, and Americans in general) do not understand statistics, and so for many this information might not be helpful. But it could hardly be less helpful than it is now.

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Improving your posture is not an easy task once your body becomes set in its ways. The obvious reason is that your joints lose their range of motion, your muscles become long in the wrong places and short in the wrong places, and everything gets tight. In my case, for example, the ribs and thoracic spinal joints do not move as freely as they should, and especially the upper thoracic spine is habitually curved forward. This places my head too far forward, placing strain on the whole axial system. This is not easy to reverse at my age, and I have been spending just over two hours a day at it for more than six months. (See here and here for more.) I am prepared to work on it for several more years, if necessary. I plan to live at least into my 90s and want to have a strong, flexible, pain free body for as long as possible.

One less obvious way that improving your posture is not an easy task is that habitual body position seems to be activity-specific. I am pretty good and improving at good posture while standing, sitting, and walking, for example, but only while doing extremely simple versions of those activities. Sitting in my truck, driving straight on the highway, it’s easy to have good posture as long as I am thinking about it. Making a right turn, however, is a completely different deal, for two reasons. First, the attention that I use to remember posture tends to be taken up by the brain activity of making the turn. Second, it seems that my body has a way of making a right turn that is a gestalt: what I am looking at and for, what I am thinking about, how I move, and the position of my entire body is molded by the pattern and memory of 24 years of right-turn making.

So unravelling that and making right turns with good posture takes some doing. And that leaves left turns pretty much untouched, not to mention playing guitar, having an emotional conversation, or leading an underarm pass while partner dancing.

I was cutting up big pieces of plywood today, using a table saw. I tried to figure out how to do this series of motions while keeping my body in good alignment. I wished that I could have a construction-slash-posture coach there, helping me out. Then I started fantasizing about people who use table saws for a living getting trained like that. I have worked on construction crews, and if you are lucky you get trained how not to cut off your fingers, but you never get trained how not to have a painful back in ten or twenty years. If it was successful, I bet the extra cost would be more than made up for by the reduction in worker’s comp claims.

On the other hand, it might not be successful. When I was first learning to dance, my teacher, Karly, spent some time emphasizing the importance of posture and moving my body into good posture. “Remember this,” she said. “This is what good posture feels like when you are dancing.” The problem was, I did not keep doing it. I think maybe I couldn’t. It was too much to think about at the same time–the feel of leading, the moves I was trying to lead, and posture. It was overwhelming. For that to have worked, I think I would have needed Karly to insist on perfect posture and never moving on before I could lead each move with perfect posture. That would have been very slow. On the other hand, I am going to have to do all of that work anyway, so that I can dance without hurting my body. That is my next project with dancing–start over, re-learning the simplest moves with perfect posture.