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Risking It All

May 30, 2011

Check out this 34-second promo for Al Jazeera’s Risking It All:

Bear with me a moment; I’m going somewhere with this…

When I was a kid the scariest thing about W.W. Jacobs’ classic 1902 horror story The Monkey’s Paw wasn’t the supernatural curse on the shriveled appendage. No, it was something that was completely real and commonplace in Jacobs’ time. The holders of the paw had wished for two hundred pounds – that’s the supernatural part – but what happens next was simply life in Victorian times:

She brought the stranger, who seemed ill at ease, into the room. He gazed at her furtively, and listened in a preoccupied fashion as the old lady apologized for the appearance of the room, and her husband’s coat, a garment which he usually reserved for the garden. She then waited as patiently as her sex would permit, for him to broach his business, but he was at first strangely silent.

“I–was asked to call,” he said at last, and stooped and picked a piece of cotton from his trousers. “I come from Maw and Meggins.”

The old lady started. “Is anything the matter?” she asked breathlessly. “Has anything happened to Herbert? What is it? What is it?”

Her husband interposed. “There, there, mother,” he said hastily. “Sit down, and don’t jump to conclusions. You’ve not brought bad news, I’m sure, sir” and he eyed the other wistfully.

“I’m sorry—-” began the visitor.

“Is he hurt?” demanded the mother.

The visitor bowed in assent. “Badly hurt,” he said quietly, “but he is not in any pain.”

“Oh, thank God!” said the old woman, clasping her hands. “Thank God for that! Thank—-”

She broke off suddenly as the sinister meaning of the assurance dawned upon her and she saw the awful confirmation of her fears in the other’s averted face. She caught her breath, and turning to her slower-witted husband, laid her trembling old hand upon his. There was a long silence.

“He was caught in the machinery,” said the visitor at length, in a low voice.

“Caught in the machinery,” repeated Mr. White, in a dazed fashion, “yes.”

He sat staring blankly out at the window, and taking his wife’s hand between his own, pressed it as he had been wont to do in their old courting days nearly forty years before.

“He was the only one left to us,” he said, turning gently to the visitor. “It is hard.”

The other coughed, and rising, walked slowly to the window. “The firm wished me to convey their sincere sympathy with you in your great loss,” he said, without looking round. “I beg that you will understand I am only their servant and merely obeying orders.”

There was no reply; the old woman’s face was white, her eyes staring, and her breath inaudible; on the husband’s face was a look such as his friend the sergeant might have carried into his first action.

“I was to say that Maw and Meggins disclaim all responsibility,” continued the other. “They admit no liability at all, but in consideration of your son’s services they wish to present you with a certain sum as compensation.”

Mr. White dropped his wife’s hand, and rising to his feet, gazed with a look of horror at his visitor. His dry lips shaped the words, “How much?”

“Two hundred pounds,” was the answer.

Got that? In 1902 it was OK for a company to have body-crushing machinery in the open where it could snatch up a worker, and then face absolutely no consequences at all. (You only need to look at photographs of Victorian factories – infernal belt-driven hells of exposed gears and presses that they were – to visualize this.) They could “disclaim all responsibility”, and “admit no liability at all” and consider themselves virtuous if they sent a year’s wages to the survivors. Dust hands, that’s a wrap, hire replacement. The story doesn’t even comment on that aspect as being at all unusual.

Chilling, when you think about it.

OSHA was signed into law in 1970 by Richard Nixon, and Conservatives have been trying to dismantle it ever since. With only about 2000 inspectors they try to protect 125 million workers, saving an estimated 40,000 lives a year to say nothing of preventing injuries.

Oh, right – I was going somewhere with this! Yesterday I watched an episode of Risking It All, in which truck drivers plied the incredibly dangerous Lowari mountain pass in Pakistan. It is harrowing stuff.

I just wanted to recommend the show to you – there’s a whole bunch of episodes on the show’s home page. They cover jobs that make Appalachian coal mining or Alaska’s “Most Dangerous Catch” look like being a hotel door man. Each one will make you love your job more, whatever it is. It’s also a window into other cultures, into the terrifying mixture of poverty and work.  As Dawoud, the driver profiled in this episode, says; “When you are poor you have no choice.”

And if you are lucky enough to have one of OSHA’s overworked inspectors show up at your workplace, be very nice to him/her. All those safety regulations seem annoying, until you think about it.


    The US version of this show would be Discovery Channel’s wonderful Dirty Jobs show. Comparing the two shows is… educational to say the least. 

  • Queen Victoria died in 1901 so technically, Jacobs’ story fell just outside that era. But society made no sudden changes on her passing.
  • Ol’ Tricky Dick also signed into law the EPA, and normalized relations with China. I’d choose him in a heartbeat over George Bush.
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