Protect Your Health

May 1, 2015
Without the proper precautions, a life in auto care can lead to unwelcome health effects

My earliest memories are of my Dad’s “place” in the New York City neighborhood of Bensonhurst. 

The sounds, smells and people are all indelibly etched in my mind. The dark and foreboding workshop, the single-pump island, the tow truck parked on the side and the equally ancient carousel truck parked in the back by the storage garages are all as real to me today as they were when I was a child.

I was Errol Flynn in “Captain Blood” as I climbed the tow truck’s “rigging,” Hopalong Cassidy as I rode the painted ponies forever frozen in a full gallop on the back of that carousel. And, sitting in the cab of that tow truck, working the pedals and spinning the steering wheel, I was with the Flying Tigers, piloting my P-40 Warhawk across China’s skies. 

But, as much as I yearned to be a pirate, a cowboy or a fighter pilot, there was nothing I wanted more than  to be my father ; to do what he did. So, I started pumping gas and washing windows right around my eighth birthday.

I needed to stand on an old wooden milk crate to reach the center of the windshield and someone had to help me raise the hood, but there was no place I’d rather be. The frustration of where the fuel filler neck was hidden became a game and if I finished my cleanup duties and there was no one on the drive, I got to climb up and down the lube pit steps or wander into “the back,” where the real work got done.  

There were engines running, wheels turning, and crazy green patterns dancing across that tiny  Heyer Dyna-Vision scope screen. Vehicles came in broken and went out whole. It was magical, a kind of magic I needed to master.

Ultimately, I was granted my wish. I entered the industry “professionally” in 1966 and I’ve been here ever since. When I was working “in the back,” my hands were hard as stone and I’m not sure I ever tried to hide the dark stains buried deep in the callus, stains left by the grease and lubricants I handled. In fact, I was proud of the dark stains under my nails. I had mastered the magic and in so doing, joined a fairly exclusive brotherhood. 

In a way, I am ashamed I had so little regard for my physical safety or the dangerous consequences inherent in what we do. But, I had never met anyone who wore gloves and rarely saw anyone working with safety glasses. You did what you had to do as quickly and efficiently as possible and tried like hell not to get hurt.  

It wasn’t a cavalier disregard for safety that drove those behaviors. Nor was it youthful arrogance. The industry was hard. The work was physically and mentally demanding, and we knew little or nothing about the chemicals we came in contact with every day. Working with chemicals, solvents and heavy metals that were later found to be carcinogenic was just an intrinsic, unavoidable, inescapable part of the job and we never considered what might happen later. At least, I didn’t. Who thinks about later until later, anyway?

Well, it’s later now and I’m thinking about it a lot. I started thinking about it over a year ago when my internist got tired of wondering about the cause of an unexplained anemia.

Like a good tech unable to walk away from a  diagnostic problem, my internist refused to discount the anomalies in my blood work and her persistence led to more tests and ultimately, an appointment with a hematologist/oncologist whose first question after receiving the results of my bone marrow biopsy was, “Have you ever worked with any petroleum-based solvents, lubricants or heavy metals?” The answer, of course, was yes.  

The biopsy led to a diagnosis: PMF, Primary Myelofibrosis, a very rare form of bone marrow cancer that I have been dealing with for just over a year with an endless series of doctor’s appointments and drugs. The diagnosis caused me to stop and mumble to myself: “Ah, see what my love hath wrought.”    

But, it isn’t my love for this industry that “hath wrought” this on me. It was my own lack of awareness working in an industry without anything even remotely resembling generally accepted practices or universal standards of any kind.

Yet, I still love what I do and the industry I serve, perhaps more now than ever. My love hath wrought a number of more positive things over the years, like a better than average life, food on the table, clothes on our backs, a place to sleep and vehicles that have never left us stranded. It’s supported countless other families who worked with us over the years as well and literally tens of thousands of motorists.    

It brought us together, you and me, and blessed me in more ways than I can count and it has strengthened my resolve to move this industry forward, albeit with a focus on safety. 

The work we are tasked with and the tools and chemicals we use are dangerous. Don’t ignore the risk. Wear eye protection and steel-toed boots. Wear a mask when appropriate. Wear gloves. 

And though the industry is still hard, it is still satisfying and just as magical as it was a half-century ago. Don’t lose your sense of wonder.

Mitch Schneider is a fourth-generation auto repair professional and the owner of Schneider’s Auto Repair in Simi Valley, Calif. He is an industry educator, author, seminar facilitator, and blogger at Contact him at [email protected]

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