This was my first (and last) assignment from Select Industrial, a Hurstville-based temp agency, whose crack team ran a battery of tests on me over about an hour and a half before deigning to put me on their books. They said they'd get back to me. Then one day came the call....
I got the call at around 10am, for a forklift driving job at a company at Banksmeadow. I was told over the phone that the original guy they'd sent out hadn't showed up (a lie, as I was to later discover). It took me over an hour to get there and upon arrival was taken to an office where I had to sit a safety quiz (unusual, this has never happened before or since), then was taken by the Irish supervisor over to the warehouse. It was en route that I was told that I was not in fact the first employee that day. The first guy had shown up, but had said he had a family emergency and left after 10 minutes. I was the second employee that day and the fourth so far that week. This was Wednesday.
We entered the relatively small warehouse, filled with stacks of hessian sacks. (Stacks and stacks of hessian sacks. I believe I was wearing slacks.) I was introduced to my co-worker, STEVE (can't remember his real name but most of the guys I find myself working with are called Steve, so odds-on that was it). Steve fixed me with a suspicious/low-IQ glare, then returned to operating the RIDICULOUSLY LOUD machine which was filling these sacks with some kind of powder. This was my introduction to vermiculite. And my lungs will probably never be the same again.
Above is the long version, as chronicled by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. In case the name of the agency isn't enough of a short version for you, I'll give you a rundown of some vermiculite facts.
- Historically, much of the world's supply of vermiculite came from a mine near Libby, Montana.
- The Libby mine also had a natural deposit of asbestos, and the vermiculite from Libby is contaminated with asbestos
- The majority of all vermiculite insulation produced before 1990 used contaminated vermiculite from Libby
- Because the Libby mine closed in 1990, newer products are not expected to contain significant amounts of asbestos
I didn't have access to these facts at the time, but I did have time to acquaint myself with the warnings on the sacks of stuff, as my first glamourous task was to stencil them onto each bag. The gist of the warnings was not to handle it without gloves or respiratory equipment, neither of which I had.
Interaction with Steve was limited, as he couldn't hear me over the noise of the machine. Later, when he switched the machine off, I discovered he couldn't hear me in a silent room, either. He yelled my next task at me, which was to shovel piles of vermiculite onto a conveyer belt. This I did until lunchtime, by which time I thought my arms would drop off.
The lunchroom was the dirtiest, filthiest place in which I've ever consumed a meal in my life. I had brought my lunch, but regrettably, not a spoon. The drawer next to the sink contained a twisted piece of metal I assume had last been used to heat heroin, so I drank my soup from its container.
Hearty meal over, it was back to the vermiculite. For a change of pace, instead of shovelling onto a conveyer belt, this time I was shovelling into a RAGING FURNACE. To what ends I'm not sure. All I know is that I was quite hot by this time and that the vermiculite had blackened my face so that I looked like some sort of sweaty minstrel.
At this stage of the story, I must say I still can't believe I didn't just leave. I must've felt bad that they couldn't get anyone to stay, so I figured I might as well do one day for them. The pay was shit so that's not really a good reason. Maybe I was curious to see how much I could take. Maybe I'm just spineless.
I did feel bad for the Irish supervisor, who was genuinely nice and who approached me at the end of the day and said he knew the job wasn't for everyone, but if I could see it out for two weeks he would really appreciate it. He asked me if I would come back tomorrow. He seemed so earnest and so desperate. I had a change of heart. I couldn't do it to him. I smiled and said yes and he laughed, relieved and happy. I'll see you tomorrow, I said, as I walked away.
I never went back.