Nursing in the workplace and factories

Of course, there are many different places that you'll find nurses. Chris Tigeris and Barb Heath both worked at Great Western Garments, the factory that made blue jeans, beginning in the 1980s. It was called the Levi Straus GWG factory when they started there. Their job title was "occupational health nurse."

Barb Heath: An occupational health nurse looks after the health, safety, and tries helping with the wellness of employees. So I would be there as the nurse who would help them if they got hurt, but also proactively try and education them so they didn't get hurt in the first place. In the safety area, working with teaching them and helping them do accident investigations, teaching them about the importance of doing inspections and looking for hazards and things that could cause injuries before the injuries actually happen. I did a lot of education with the safety stuff. But also with wellness, I did different sorts of wellness training. Sometimes did training programs during the noon hour, which we call Lunch & Learn. Taught the employees about breast cancer and what they could do preventatively - going for mammography, things like that.I worked three days a week, the last half of the week. People would be coming to me throughout the day. Sometimes coffee breaks were so busy they decided to come between coffee break and lunch. I'd help them with whatever problems they presented, charting on what the problem was. If there was any kind of health and safety presentation that I was making, I'd be working on that. Every day was different. Every day there was a new problem. Occasionally there was a group of people that wanted to come see me because they had a big safety concern. Then I would try and sort through that and figure out what we could do.

Chris Tigeris: I found job sharing worked really good for me and my family situation. The types of things that Barb did on her days working were the same kind of things I did. We literally took the job and cut it in half and tried to share it as much as possible. We'd monitor the absenteeism and make sure employees who were off on sick leave got their papers in, got paid when they were on sick leave. If employees were off on WCB, we made sure we got the forms in and monitored that they were getting paid, and did all the disability management.

Piece work was often a cause of injuries, as people were working quickly and perhaps not too carefully to increase their output and hence their pay.   Barb Heath explains that there were many elbow injuries.

Elbow injuries, wrist injuries, carpal tunnel, shoulder injuries. Those were the main injuries that we saw. And like I said earlier, they quite often left them so long that they would be having numbness all the way up their arm. Or they couldn't even throw their jeans over to their bundle because their arm hurt so bad. So it was really important that we tried to get to them right away. If they could take a bit of time off, for the first few days it helped.

Barb Heath: We had physiotherapists come in during the last five years that we were working. They did some preventative exercises that we could teach our workers. When they were first hired, we'd go through some things that they would have to do before work, and tell them to take some mini stretch breaks during the day. We'd show them the exercises that they had to do throughout the day, and we'd make them show them back to us. Then we'd check them after they were there for so long. We saw quite often, people that were new hires were the ones that were at risk for getting an injury. So we would follow up and have them come back to us and tell us how they were doing. Because quite often they did have sore limbs, and they were too afraid to come and tell us.

The nurses used their imagination and their willingness to keep up with the changes to help prevent injuries.

Chris Tigeris: Another thing we did was ergonomics. When we were setting up machines, we tried to make sure it was the right fit for the worker. We had an ergonomics committee, and we involved people that had been at the plant for years and knew lots of jobs, and had really good suggestions. We had one lady, Bonnie, who knew every job inside out. She was really helpful for the ergonomics team, because she knew how the job should flow.

Barb Heath: One of the things that was really neat that we thought of was to put up pictures when we were advertising for a new job. Put up pictures of a person, and then shade in the area that might get sore if they were working on that job. So they could just see, even if they couldn't read, just by looking at the picture. If the left shoulder was shaded in the picture, then they knew they'd better have strong left shoulder muscles.

Many changes occurred over the years.

Chris Tigeris: Back in 1986 when I started, eye glasses were one of the first things everyone had to wear. But it wasn't mandatory on all machines, because some machines had a little piece of plastic in front of the needle that was supposed to stop the needle from hitting the person's face if it broke off. But that ended up being changed so that everyone wore glasses.

"The mesh gloves you mentioned were before that, and I don't know when those really started. But it's basically a chain link glove that's just worn on the opposite hand of the cutting hand. If they were right handed and pushed the cutting machine with their right hand, they wore it on the left hand. If they were moving fabric around and they accidentally hit the blade, the blade would break a link. But they'd move their hand out of the way so they wouldn't get cut.

Because of the number of women in the plant, the focus was often on women's health issues.

Chris Tigeris: There was a lot of focus on women's things, but that's only because that was the majority of the people there. When we did breast self-examination with a mammography that came on site, it's the only company in Alberta that's ever had mammography come on site and do the actual xrays on site. It's only because we had the ideal population here. We had all these women. A lot of them were of the age that they should be having mammographies, and they wouldn't be going voluntarily on their own the first time.

Many changes over the years, many friendships made from all nationalities in a factory situation.

Barb Heath: I remember every summer we had a picnic, a barbeque. They made a big deal of it. Usually it was like a dress-up kind of thing. We'd have some sort of theme - Klondike Days dress or Hawaiian dress or something like that. That was some of the socialization stuff that we did. I remember one time a group of us getting dressed up as The Village People. The ladies were so excited coming off the floor, because we were all singing. It was just a really happy atmosphere. A lot of neat people to work with, and they all got excited with us.

Thank you to Catherine Cole for permission to use her interview with Barb Heath and Chris Tigeris.
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