Who Was That Masked Man?

“So, what’s it like working in a uranium mine?” I asked my neighbor.

The neighborhood block party thirty-five years ago was in full swing, square dance music blaring, and the beer from the local craft brewery keeping things lubricated.

“Well,” he replied, It’s kinda spooky sometimes. There are some areas where you can feel the radiation, you know, the room with the higher levels. But you can’t smell the radon gas.”

“Don’t you wear masks?” I asked, knowing that they were required.

 “Yeah, when we go in, but most of us just remove them when the supervisor isn’t around.”

Radon, uranium dust … yeah, why wear a mask? What could go wrong?

I kept quiet. He was bright and obviously knew the concerns, but like many young men, had to be macho around his peers — or nosy neighbors like me.

My profession had taken me into lots of dirty places. A few mines, sewage systems, chemical plants, hazardous waste sites, medical facilities and food processing plants, among others. The first rule was always to follow the required safety procedures. Second, don’t touch any surface — handrail, wall, desktop, equipment — unless you had to and don’t touch your face. If the workers were wearing gloves, you wore gloves. If the workers had masks, you wore a mask. If the worker wore safety glasses, shoe coverings, Tyveks or coveralls … you did too. If the workers went through decontamination, you did too.

It’s a dangerous world out there, and not to be taken lightly. I was professionally and repeatedly trained on how to wear a paper mask, a half-face respirator and a full-face respirator. In the latter, you have to breathe in through your mouth and out through your nose to minimize fogging. A supplied-air respirator (think scuba) doesn’t have those problems but makes your breathing more controlled. I found the hardest part to be the limits on your vision. Peripheral vision is curtailed and looking down is limited. Half-face respirators are less clumsy, but you may still need eye protection, so there’s another thing to wear and keep track of.

I have been trained on how to remove potentially-contaminated clothing and gear, so that you don’t get exposed to something on the outside of your suit. The old pros at the nuclear weapons plant used to laugh at us rookies trying not to fall over when removing coveralls. You had to slide the coveralls down to the gloves and shoe coverings and then remove it all as one bundle, being careful never to touch the outer surface.

Once, boss and I were visiting a closed munitions plant where we were required to wear Tyvek coveralls and full- face respirators. Outside the controlled zone, we sat down to remove our gear and he pulled off his respirator and lit a cigarette. The operators just watched, wide-eyed with amazement. We wore the respirators there because of the threat of hydrazine gas in the facility. Hydrazine is also a major component of tobacco smoke. He had not a clue.

One of the things I learned early on when spending time in sewage treatment plants was that operators liked to break in the ‘new guys’ by having them do some nasty job, like cleaning out a sludge pump. They usually were okay if you wanted to wear gloves and maybe a face shield, but they enjoyed seeing your discomfort. It was “all in good fun.”

But most places, particularly if it was a union shop, followed strict safety procedures and the workers took them seriously. A few took a shortcut here and there, but no one wanted to get sick and have to take time off; the pay was too good.

When I officed in a hospital on the Navajo reservation, I got to know the doctors and nurses, and learned a lot about contagion from them. Face masks, latex gloves, lots of hand washing — just part of the work. If you didn’t do it right, you could easily contaminate yourself or your patient. Worse, you could spread the contamination to your coworkers, family or others outside of the hospital. Common sense.

So, here we are in the middle of a nearly unprecedented pandemic, a highly contagious, potentially deadly plague that we can mitigate by wearing face masks, washing hands frequently and social distancing. The concept of ‘highly contagious’ is apparently not well understood by many people. It means that someone can be contaminated and infected without direct contact, without their knowledge, and without immediate symptoms.

For example, if you spill acid on your skin, you will know immediately because it will burn. You could rub that part of your skin on someone else’s skin, transferring some of the acid and causing them to burn. The chain could conceivably continue until someone stops touching others or everyone washes it off.

Of course, with COVID, you don’t know you have it until ten days or so later, so the chances of passing it on to others and not knowing it is greatly enhanced. There’s no burning for you or others, so who knows who gets it and who doesn’t? It’s not something that you’re too macho to get. The virus is non-selective for toughness, but thrives on stupidity.

There’s no silver bullet, but to those who refuse to wear masks, wash their hands frequently and social distance, I ask, “What could go wrong?”

“Hold my beer.”

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