I’ve been observing the ongoing theater of the beeg roundabout project. Like some gigantic, dusty, asphalt millipede, everyday, some new episode: monster track-hoes gouging deep into the earth, effacing NCSU’s Watauga Drive; a brief reappearance of a section of Raleigh’s buried streetcar system; Gus Gusler, proprietor of the storied Player’s Retreat setting Christmas lights to “lure customers in. Sort of like a landing strip,” said Gus indicating final approach with his hands.
I have accepted the inevitable changes amid the disruptions, but the dust from all the digging, dumping, cutting and so forth, a gritty “patina” all over buildings, street, trees, vehicles that the wind and rain just sort of seem to move about had become more than just a nuisance. Hamlett had been fined for not watering the roads, something the organizers of Burning Man manage to do twice a day amid all the group sex and hallucinogens, fer Christ’s sake.
I’ve done a fair hitch in construction world starting (illegally) at the tender age of 15, an exterior window job on a 13 story building at UNC, on to framing houses, roofing, painting and digging, yep, a lot of digging, so my empathy lies with the ordinary schleps with mud on their shoes and calluses on their hands. But I am sufficiently removed from the day to day of construction work (accompanied by a measure of pedestrian, abstract detachment) that a critical aspect of job-site practice escaped me — until last Tuesday.
Through a window at Sadlack’s I watched a worker noisily sawing bricks amid a great cloud of dust billowing around him and his compatriots. My bud, Ronnie Monroe, a wiry, easily ired fellow with 26 years in the paving business stood watching, nearly twitching. Finally, I was moved go outside and get a reading from a professional. Ronnie was mad as a bee, apoplectic.
“They need to get those boys some water!” Ronnie nearly yelled. “All this equipment and money and they can’t afford a fucking hose? This is an atrocity” I calmed him down to get him to expand on his point. It wasn’t about drinking water.
“That dust is fucking deadly.” Ronnie spat. That is true. Silica dust is just about the worst thing you can get into your lungs, “associated with development of silicosis, lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis and airway diseases,” according to the NC Department of Labor, headquartered less than 2 miles distant. No one in the vicinity of the mini Mt. St. Helens across the street wore the correct, approved NIOSH 95 respirators, not even the saw operator, making do with a crummy, worthless homeowner’s “nuisance” particle mask. Back inside, the balance of the peanut gallery was in consensus.
“Dead men walking,” said one of the five o’clock crowd.
The next day included emails and phone calls to everyone with a dog in the fight, including this old Raleigh boy’s first trip to the 1885 Labor building. That afternoon I went up to Sad’s all ready to continue my tirade against someone and there, lo, across the street stood a 4 foot by 4 foot palletized, armored plastic water tank and hose feeding the all-important trickle of water to the brick saw. My crusade was blunted. “Damn,” I thought to myself. “You can actually accomplish good by using the system.” The next day, I contended with a barrage of calls and emails, one from a Terry Bunting, a safety consultant with the GC, Hamlett Construction, who thanked me for my response and for “paying attention.”
That was that, thought I, bearing for a time this small victory with a tad of pride attending a sort of new (for me) basic wisdom of using resources at hand instead of my standard all-too-common contentious attack-dog pattern. That lasted one whole day, until Wednesday evening. I watched one of the Hamlett crew tidying up after their day, clearing the same brick dust from the newly laid brick walk with a leaf blower, the hurricane speed wind unleashing a movie-set pall of red, ochre dust that hung in the air for blocks until I had enough and got out of there.
This situation is a fine perch to utilize the Suprapolitic, my own, pet term that points to the necessity of rising above the uselessness of our fake politic, the standard, profitless finger-pointing both the left and right are gulled into employing, you know, “It’s all (insert business or government)’s fault. In this case the cardboard cutout bogymen, business and government, Hamlett and at least two government jurisdictions failed utterly on a major job on a main drag of a capital city. North Carolina, Raleigh and Hamlett Construction have all proven (1) incompetent as regards training and administration of laws and regulations put in place to protect worker and public safety, and/or (2) that they simply doesn’t give a damn.
The collective insouciance about matters of health extends beyond their disposable, easily replaceable, migrant workers into the realm of public health. This cavalier lack of responsibility concerning this potent, hazardous substance has exposed thousands of Raleigh citizens, visitors, State kids, but especially workers and customers who spend a lot of time at Hillsborough Street’s restaurants and bars to a substance that adheres to delicate lung tissue forever, raising ones chances of coming down with a fatal illness. I have to make a special point of the latter as daily exposure to this stuff at one’s job would count as “occupational” if you are pouring beers at Sadlack’s or the PR. The stuff becomes part of your world, tracked in by any and everyone, distributed by HVAC systems.
It is inexcusable for these haphazard procedures to have become a problem at all. But that this egregious threat to public safety was allowed to continue day in, day out for months, even after being notified is beyond comprehension and begs a demand for redress, acknowledgment and more, some basic, palpable, consistent application of education and procedures. Contractors must be made to hold to basic requirements by making these sorts of issues part of the contract. All involved in a contract must make this part of the deal and governments spend less time chasing, say, nuisance parties and more on actual matters of substance. Since the only thing these yo-yos seem to understand is money perhaps a class action lawsuit handled by a good respiratory attorney might be in order.
We need more ears on the ground on this. I enjoin anyone who observes these sorts of slack-ass procedures to log a call to the NC Department of Labor. ( To start, try Kevin O’Barr, NCDOL standards supervisor, 919-807-2878.) With enough ants crawling up their legs, the contactors on this and any of the other myriad local, state, federal projects popping up might even be made to respond.