When one enters the workplace for the first time, it is a stressful and trying experience. We are thrown into an environment, which we is always close to us, but we have never encountered first-hand. Our daily lives, even when we are young and do not work, are defined by labor. I remember my father returning home from work tired and angry, my mother having returning from work after a grueling day then having to perform household chores. Our lives are limited and defined by work: it decides when we go on holidays, when is our leisure time, the structure of our days and the possibilities we have in society. Perhaps it is the closeness to work, which I had never before experienced, yet its simultaneous importance in our daily lives, that imbued me with a certain hesitancy, apprehension and even fear, the first time I entered the workforce.
My first job was manual, or what is sometimes insultingly called, “unskilled” labor. More specifically, I was a maintenance worker and cleaner. The first day of work I felt all the nerves of an inexperienced person joining an experienced team. My co-workers were all grizzled veterans, some of them not particularly kind to the young student who had entered their “club.” In many work situations, there is a sense in which seniority gives privileges. I do not dispute this privilege. But many times, a co-worker will use his or her seniority in a negative sense, asserting a superiority over the new worker.
On my first week on the job, I made a terrible mistake and damaged some equipment that belonged to the maintenance office which employed me. When I thought of one of these particular grizzled veterans who was particularly unkind, I was terrified at what his reaction would be to the situation. Although this was a minimum-wage job, I had always dedicated myself to a strong work ethic. When I took upon a task, I wanted to perform it to the best of my abilities. It was a shame for me, even though I was inexperienced, a greenhorn as they say, to have made a mistake that would be costly, in the sense that the company would have to replace the equipment that was damaged. There was also the fear that I would lose my job so soon after starting it; but the greater fear was that I had failed at my task. An even greater fear would be the reaction of the aforementioned supervisor who, I could already see, would scream and shout at me about the incident. That was worse then potentially losing the job.
I walked into our maintenance office and there was an older worker. He had previously worked in a factory for most of his life. At the age when he should have been retired, he instead worked this small job, in part to pass the time, in part to earn some extra income outside of his pension. I had only had very brief interactions with him in the short time I was at the job, however, he had treated me with a kindness that I appreciated, in so far as I was a rookie and he was a veteran.
Seeing him in the office, I approached him and told him what had happened. I explained what I did wrong. I told him how I had damaged the equipment and that I feared I would even lose my job. I expressed my concern that our notorious supervisor would be angry with me. I conveyed my shame that the company would have to pay for the damaged equipment because of my incompetence as a young worker.
The old man smiled as I told the story. This was the smile of experience and of understanding what is truly important. He listened attentively to my story, gave me a slap on the back and told me these words that I will never forget: “if it doesn’t bleed, don’t worry.” He told me the background of this phrase. As mentioned, he had previously worked in a factory, in particular, a steel factory. This was dangerous work. Many workers lost limbs, were injured because of the nature of the job. But the danger of the job had given the workers a new perspective as to what was important. Certainly, things were always damaged, plans went unfulfilled, work was also filled with disappointment and failure. However, what was truly important was that we remained safe, that no one was hurt in the innumerable incidents that shape the work place. We have to consider what is truly important.
Every time I have a bad day in the workplace or in my studies, something does not go as I expected, I remember these words from my kind co-worker. We tend to overlook the humane part of the workplace. We reduce the workplace to profits, quotas, production, capital. We forget the workers that constitute the workplace and which is its foundation. And what is important to the worker is above all his or her health, his or her safety. If things go wrong at work, these are quite literally “things.” They are not human beings. This radically humanistic approach to the workplace, crucially introduced to me by my veteran comrade, was an invaluable piece of true wisdom which he gave to a young and naïve worker. These simple words have defined my attitudes to my workplace and my co-workers and I thank him, wherever he is now, for this simply stated, but profound advice.