Safety and the Handyman Lifestyle

Many of you know that one of my side projects is a YouTube channel called Handyman Kevin. On the channel, I demonstrate a bunch of skills that I picked up when I dropped out of engineering school and spent a decade as a handyman, bicycle mechanic, factory worker, and cabinet maker. To keep things fun, I invented a character called, eponymously, Handyman Kevin, who is a somewhat courser and all-around goofier character than I. Perhaps he is what I would have turned into if I hadn’t straightened out my life and gotten my last two college degrees. Most people look at my videos and see them as one more guy trying to make a buck off the so-called DIY movement. They aren’t wrong. But I do like to think that I hit a deeper vein of materials now and then. The fact is, I’m lucky enough to have survived a lifestyle which is totally foreign to the average white, middle-class American of my generation. Being a handyman isn’t about having a garage full of expensive tools that you use once a month to build birdhouses. It’s about living in your truck because you only work three days a week for $10/hour and can’t afford an apartment. It’s about being dirty, tired, cold, and wet while some housewife tries to talk down the bill on a $50 job that barely paid for the gas to get you to there. It’s about knowing that you don’t have insurance and that if you get hurt, assuming you are lucky enough to make it to the ER, they will probably give you the minimum care and kick you out the door before you bring down the tone.

Back in the day, I took all of this for granted because, for all the drawbacks of the lifestyle, it also has a lot of freedom and gives you a sense of accomplishment. There is a lot of pride in knowing that only your own skills are keeping you from starving, but that you haven’t starved yet.

Obviously, I and the middle class see things from a very different perspective. Few things drive the perceptual gap home to me as hard as when I post a video and I start getting comment after comment saying things like “You need to be more careful.”, “You should get a vice.”, or “It looked like you almost cut your hand off.”

Actually, I enjoy these comments. Usually, they mean that particular video is going to get an above average number of views—which may say something about my audience. Still, given that my mission is to open a window into the working man’s lifestyle, I feel compelled to raise a few points.

  • There are very few vices on job sites. The plumber might have one, for making up pipe. Carpenters simply don’t use them, and almost no handyman or laborer has one because they are heavy and expensive. For that matter, in the two factories I worked in (one with 11,000 employees and the other with 1,600) there was exactly one vice per factory, both of them in the tool rooms. We were expected to get by without them and hold things with our hips or our knees. It worked fine.
  • In my experience, tradesmen are actually more careful than white-collar workers. Our bodies are our only way to make money. If we get hurt, we usually get fired. Worker’s comp is a joke, even if the company doesn’t find a way to disqualify us. If we’re self employed we don’t even get that.
  • Most tradesmen, who learned to work in the field through apprenticeships, do things that are relatively safe, yet look dangerous to white collar workers. When I was a safety foreman at an oil refinery I spent nearly all of my time arguing with managers to keep them from making rules that would make it impossible for my men to get any work done. Trust me, by the time we turn out as journeymen we know how to work safely. Either we get the skills beat into us by our foremen, or we hurt ourselves badly enough to leave the trade. In the six months I spent at the oil refinery, with an average crew size of about 30, our only reportable injury was an administrative assistant who sprained her ankle when she tripped on the stairs to the office trailer.

Sorry for getting on my soap box. These things seem terribly obvious to me. I bet they are also obvious to your gardener, the guys who built your house, the maintenance guy at your office building, and the people who work in the factories in Asia where everything in your home was made. I realize, though, that they aren’t so obvious to you. That’s why I make these videos. These days, very few of you will ever spend much time on a construction job site or a factory floor. I have, though, and I try to recreate a little of that in my garage every week.

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