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The Workers I Most Respect

By Marty Nemko

On Labor Day, I wish to honor some workers who get far too little recognition. We could not survive without them.

These quotations are from workers who described their jobs on

Sulfur Shoveler

“I worked in a paper mill and had to go into the boxcar, even in 90-degree weather, and shovel the sulfur by hand into a wheelbarrow and wheel it out to a conveyor belt.The boxcars had no ventilation and my eyes and nose would burn for hours afterwards. Surely that is what hell would be like.”

Sewage plant worker

“Imagine standing on a rickety metal walkway above tons of steaming bubbling fermenting human shit. The stuff would be heated in the tanks to help the bacteria decompose it.If that’s not bad enough, imagine being lowered until you are dangling on a rope six inches above the shit checking for faults in the sensors. Please spare a thought for me the next time you take a dump.”

Human Guinea Pig

“They told me that all I had to do was swallow a few pills and report on what happened. Cool, I thought. Wrong! On the first job I took a couple of greenish pills. I sat down a while and nothing happened so they sent me home. On the subway, I suddenly felt a horrible pain in my intestines and two quarts of diarrhea ran out of me-- in a crowded subway car during rush hour! After I reported that, they told me that they had expected this earlier! Thank you.”

Prison Guard

“We walk a beat most police officers wouldn't…hat a treat it is when you have a blood exposure: an inmate’s blood gets on you, and you have to go a year for testing to make sure you didn't get AIDS, or Hep A, B, C) How does the blood get on us? We can get assaulted in many ways: with homemade knives made out of razor blades melted onto a toothbrush--great for slashing… They also spit at us and throw urine and feces at us… Yet we do not get the public’s respect. Go to a prison near you and ask for a tour. You will be surprised at what you see and hear.”

Road Kill Collector

“By the time I get to the animal, the decomposition process is well in motion. Their little bodies are bloated and heavy, bug infested and smelly. Odors that most people never need to experience are a part of my daily work routine. It is nauseating. It is nonstop. My worst experience was when I tried to clean up an animal that looked like an armadillo. It was badly wounded and not dead. It was mean and nasty. I had to finish it off with my shovel.”

Cowhide Puller

“You climb down into a dump truck full of cow hides that are covered in blood, buried in slaughter remains. With steam rising from the heaping mound of stench, you reach down, pull on the slippery, slimy hide, hook it, and hope to move out of the way before the overhead track pulls the hide into your body. It's likely you get knocked down into the spongypile.”

The vast majority of people willing to do these jobs are men. Yes, women do unpleasant tasks, for example, clean hotel rooms, but those jobs pale compared with those profiled in this column. I might also mention that in the military, only men are allowed to serve in direct combat. While 43 American women have died in Iraq, more than 1,800 men have.

We live in an era in which it is acceptable to bash men but not women. Especially on Labor Day, we might think about the many men who are willing to do what far fewer women are willing to do to put bread on the table, and, in the process, make America safer for us all.

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