To Protect Yourself In a World Full of Peril, You Have To Dress For Safety

I've been obsessed for most of my adult life with personal safety devices. The cause of this is probably early exposure to terror. My first job was in a sawmill. (The only thing in my experience scarier than that place was the hangar deck of an aircraft carrier during blacked-out night operations.) Saws with no guards, miles of belts running wide open, forklifts trying to run you over, horrendous noise levels -- if you can think of a hazard, the old mill had it. Luckily, the sole injury I suffered there was from a grasshopper that crawled into my ear one day and kicked a hole in my tympanic membrane. Now, I always wear earmuffs on the job, or whenever I'm around grasshoppers.

Actually, I'm addicted to two kinds of hearing protection. I have a pair of big plastic earmuffs that I wear for short, loud jobs. I also have a set of little plastic-foam sponges that I roll up and stick in my ears, where they expand and shut out the noise. These are for when I have to be in a noisy situation for a long time.

I've become secretive about the little sponges. I conceal them in a container that I hide in my left pocket. I can sneak them out of the container and roll them up while my hand is still in my pocket; it then takes only an instant to insert them when no one is looking.

I began this secrecy after my granddaughter exclaimed at how dirty the sponges are. She was right. They are dirty. But once they're in place, no one can tell. I now find that I like to wear my earplugs in public places, where occasionally I embarrass myself by shouting at clerks and other people because I can't hear how loud I'm talking.

I also have a thing about safety glasses. No doubt this, too, derives from the fact that I've always worked in the kinds of jobs where a person could lose or damage an eye in no time. I used to feel uncomfortable whenever I didn't have my safety glasses on. By now my eyesight has degenerated to the point where I have to wear real glasses all the time. No problem. I have a couple of removable side guards that I can clip onto the earpieces, thereby transforming my ordinary glasses into, in effect, safety glasses. I'm so accustomed to my side guards that if I don't have them on I become alarmed by too much peripheral vision. I think I see things passing close by when they aren't. In fact, I've incurred several cricks of the neck from turning my head too rapidly to avoid imaginary missiles. That's why I keep my side guards on all the time.

I'm not the only one who obsesses on personal safety. Recently I bought a new hammer with a little sticker on it that says: "Caution: Always wear eye protection when using this tool as chips of steel may fly into your eyes." The next day, I had to go to the patent attorney to see if any of my brilliant ideas had paid off yet. There in the waiting room was a man with a hammer just like mine, except that on the business end of it he had stuck one of those little sink-style plumber's friends. I had to ask him about it.

The man told me that the plunger cup was a safety device that would prevent bits of steel from flying into someone's eye. "I know what you are wondering," he said. "You are wondering how the user of the hammer will be able to see the nail. Well, when we get into production, this guard will be made of transparent vinyl instead of black rubber." I asked him to send me one as soon as it came on the market.

I mustn't neglect to mention my rubber gloves. I'm a boatbuilder and I wear rubber gloves for two reasons: first, because of all the toxic glues and other stuff I have to work with, and second, because of all the advice my customers want to give me.

I don't know why, but people feel compelled to give advice to boatbuilders. When they go to the dentist, they just sit there in the chair and don't offer him any advice at all. When they go to the doctor, they don't try to tell him how to run his business. I used to think that the reason we laboring folks don't advise professional people had something to do with the fact that they went to school longer than we did or made more money or had receptionists. But I finally figured out the real reason. It's those rubber gloves they wear that intimidate us! So whenever visitors to my shop start crowding around to tell me how to clench a tack or smear glue, I just whip out my rubber gloves, pull them on and watch those would-be advisers head for the sidelines.

I started getting serious about respiratory safety around the same time I began using modern finishes. I was out painting a boat in the yard one morning when I noticed that dragonflies 20 feet up in the air were plummeting to earth as if they'd been shot. In the old days bugs seemed to be attracted to regular varnish, but the smell of the new stuff was chasing all the whiteflies out of the gardenia bushes.

That was enough for me. I went to town and bought the best face mask I could find. A wise purchase, it turned out. The other day, while I was at a Little League baseball game, I was trying to decipher what my wife was telling me by reading her lips when a foul ball caromed off the steel toe of my safety shoe and hit me smack in the face. Fortunately, I was wearing my twin-canister, federally approved organic vapor mask. I didn't feel a thing.

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