Saturday, March 27, 2010

Pumping iron

Well, the ‘publish’ button was hardly pushed on my little exposition of how little sexism there is in the trucking industry these days, when I thought I was going to have to print a retraction. It was touch and go for a while there. I thought I’d uncovered a fiendish plot to keep women off the road.

I’ve been offered this job, you see. After a year recovering from the physical meltdown that followed Highway 17 in a blizzard, I finally got the go-ahead from the doc to get back in a truck. I passed the MTO medical and started flinging my resume at trucking companies. I naturally thought that they’d jump at the chance to hire an almost-rookie, after all I was offered the last job before the ink had dried on my licence. But the recession has intervened and loads of experienced drivers are on the market, having been laid off last year. The job pickings are leaner. Especially for someone who wants to drive solo (the doc said no more teaming) and has had a year to get rusty.

So, on the face of it, the job offer was great news. They pretty much hired me over the phone. So, no initial test drive, a solo run into the US and a pay rate that reflected my experience. Hoorah. But then came the pre-employment screening. All the paperwork was standard enough; medical, police check, driving abstracts, both private and commercial, sight of your passport and FAST card, all normal. But then...a fitness test. No-one else does that. The recruiter helpfully handed me a list of all the exercises, with handy diagrams. It’s supposed to be designed to mimic the day to day tasks one has to carry out around the truck. Said recruiter then suggested that I have a chat with their physio about ways to prepare for this part of their screening system.

Of course the intrinsic contradiction in requiring a physiotherapist to help you prepare to demonstrate things that you do all the time seemed to be passing these people by. And I have to tell you that these exercises are not easy. Neither are they in any way related to opening truck doors or bonnets and pulling pins or winding landing gear. And here is where I thought I had spotted some rampant sexism at work.

Some of the exercises are about bending and stepping, they make some kind of sense; you do have to clamber about a bit, up and under things. There is some pushing and pulling, fair enough. But there’s a lot of lifting and carrying, which we just don’t do. The rationale is that you might have to unload your own trailer one day, but nobody does. I’d just had a conversation with the same recruiter about company compensation for out of pocket expenses, one of which is the paying of ‘lumpers’ who will unload your trailer for you if necessary. The worst one could expect would be to use a hand cart once in ten years. So, pray, why would you want me to demonstrate that I can lift to my waist, and carry for 30 feet, a basket weighing 60lbs? Why would I need to be able to lift 40lbs from my waist to my shoulders three times? Why on earth would I ever want to raise 30lbs from the floor to above my head, weightlifter-style? The excuse for this one took the biscuit. You might have to load a heavy dufflebag of your own belongings onto the top bunk, so the physio really needs to see you wave that basket of weights over your head. And take your pulse after each exercise to make sure you aren’t going to have a heart attack every time you stow your luggage.

It’s all nonsense, obviously. Apart from the fact that a 30lb duffelbag on the top bunk would fly off and kill you while braking for the first set of lights you came to, the choice to pack smaller bags doesn’t make you a crap trucker. Just a clever one.

I was sensing mysogyny. Pointless exercises targeting upper body strength for the hell of it, mimicking tasks nobody needs to do...and making tasks that do exist harder than they need to be...clearly designed to keep women out of the company. But why then had they offered me the job in the first place? Were they all just stupid?

I had my chat with the physio. I tried to be nice, not spiky and suspicious at all, just interested. How long had the company been running these tests? Who devised them? How often do their drivers have to redo the screen? How difficult does the physio find doing them? (That last, put in for a little polite devilment, he looked as though he has never lifted anything much heavier than a pie.) The answers were partly interesting and partly peculiar, I mentally filed them away for further contemplation at home. I had to listen to some seriously self-important crap about how much more the physio knows about the right way to lift than I do. I doubt this, I carried people on stretchers up and down stairs for enough years as a paramedic. I know exactly how to use my legs and bodyweight instead of my arms and back, which is precisely why so many of these exercises are daft. There are easier ways to open bonnets and pull pins than the assumptions made on my little page of diagrams. But I did learn something immediately useful.... the physio really likes the sound of his own voice. This means that I can ask innocent questions between one exercise and the next and he will answer at length. That should give my pulse a bit of extra time to recover.

The oddest answer was that no-one ever had to retake the screen once employed. The most amusing, that the physio didn’t have to do them at all. (I enjoyed the sheepish face, ‘oh I can’t do any of that.’) I also learned that the pre-screen is only about 3 years old and has been devised by an ‘ergonomics’ company in the US. It is mandatory for the US terminals in the company, so Canada has to do it too. I googled the source of my irritation and hey presto, really it’s all about US medical insurance. Here’s a telling quote from ATLAS Ergonomics’ website in a section entitled Protecting Your Borders:

“If you are in an industry or community where you share an employment pool with other companies, you also need to consider what those companies are doing. If they are conducting pre-employment screens, their rejected employees will seek employment elsewhere. As more companies implement screens and reject employees, the risk of the employment pool increases.Eventually, those companies who do not conduct screens will absorb the risk avoided by others.”

It appears that the tests are indeed a load of nonsense, but they are not sexist, they are personist. Fattist, cardio-vascularist, under-the-weatherist. The idea seems to be to push each candidate to their physical limits any which way to weed out anyone who might become ill later on during their working career. So, if you are perfectly fit to do the job (the normal ministry medical sees to that) but might have a heart attack, stroke or back injury down the line, we’ll push you there now and ensure that you can’t work at all. No wonder no-one has to redo the routine. If it’s all about insurance the last thing you’d want once you’d hired someone is risk pushing them to their limits again. Despite the bleating about how beneficial it is for us to have this screening to help us work better.

With US healthcare in the news, and people who live in saner countries learning with disbelief how their medical insurance companies behave, it is still shocking to me that people can be treated in this way. Fortunately Canada has universal health care and, if I fail this damned test, there will be other jobs...most local companies aren’t US owned. But in the meantime I have some working out to do.

I have filled a recycle box with 10 and 20 kilo bags of salt, left over from the winter. I am carrying it about the kitchen, picking it up from the floor, raising it to my shoulders and occasionally waving it perilously over my head as the cats run for cover. I am running, stepping, crouching and taking my pulse. A year off sick has taken its toll, I’m knackered and aching and my pulse is erratic. Will I pass the pre-screen and be an employed trucker again? To be honest, it’s difficult to call. I will find out on Monday. If five days isn’t long enough to get super-fit though, at least I will know to blame Americans rather than misogynists.

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