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The Secret Sign Language of 1970’s Sawmill Workers were expressed through Gestures?

About three-quarters of their language overlapped with those of the British Columbia and the American Sign Language.

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A sawmill in the interior of Australia, circa 1900. Image source: Wikipedia
  • The history of sign languages inside American mills dates back to centuries
  • The language was also used to exchange bulks of technical information and instructions
  • The automation in industries drastically reduced the usage of sign languages among workers

“You crazy old farmer!”
“Full of crap”
It’ll be easy for anyone to guess that the above words must be that of a conversation between two high school hipster kids. However, pondering over the usage of ‘farmer’ would surprise many of us like it surprised the researchers Martin Meissner and Stuart Philpott when they visited sawmills in British Columbia in the 1970s.

Another fact of surprise is that the above words were not spoken by the mouth, but expressed through gestures and sign languages. As unbelievable as it might seem, the workers inside sawmill factories communicated with each other through signs and symbols as late as the 1970s. They were so well versed in the system that one could even tell when a foreman was “f**king around over there.” Not only this, the language was also used to exchange bulks of technical information and instructions on how to cut wood, and so on.

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Linguists and researchers Meissner and Philpott studied a particular factory where they found about 157 signs ranging from communication of their trade work to passing crude comments or teasing colleagues. “Ingenuity and elegance” of the hand signs struck both the researchers who were equally fascinated by the owner’s oblivion of the entire language system.

The history of sign languages inside American mills dates back to centuries. In the present day scenario, people often develop “alternate sign languages” to communicate what words cannot. In religious places, especially monasteries were talking is disliked between sermons, monks use sign language to pass important messages. In textile, steel or engine industries where noise predominates the surrounding, workers have always found ways of communicating through gestures or signs.

A lumber Industry. Image source: Wikipedia
A lumber Industry. Image source: Wikipedia

It was Popular Mechanics in 1955 to cover industrial symbolic languages with a record depletion in the practice. It was only in the 1970s with the findings of Meissner and Philpott that a particular factory was found to be practising the same. Mainly standard numerical systems were jotted down in a technical notebook, as the researchers noted in their study, “in the view of the management, that was about all there was to the language.”

Through the system, quitting time, lunch time, bets placed on games, or cigarette breaks could be communicated. The workers also talked about cars, wives, colleagues or joke about things going on without the knowledge of their bosses.

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“Big shot there,” as a worker pointed to the boss was interestingly noted during the study. Later, it was discovered that the boss was sitting with three women, one of who had a great figure, said the worker. The worker “then drew a rectangle with his index finger and pointed to the head sawyer’s operating cubicle, wanting to liken the woman he described to the calendar nude behind the sawyer,” the researchers wrote. “She’s my girlfriend,” he told the others.

Tapping the wrist was a gesture to ask the time, clutching the bicep to indicate “weak” or “week”, up-and-down movement suggested a woman’s breast, recorded the researchers.
The technical signs were generally learnt by workers within six months but to learn more linguistic terms for everyday conversations, was more the kind of thing among older workers. It was popular among men who were open to everyone knowing what they shared with their friends.

Machines replaced workers. Early 20th-century sawmill, maintained at Jerome, Arizona. Image source: Wikipedia
Machines replaced workers. Early 20th-century sawmill, maintained at Jerome, Arizona. Image source: Wikipedia

About three-quarters of their language overlapped with those of the British Columbia and the American Sign Language. Another linguist, Robert Johnson met a retired sawmill worker at Oregon a few years after Meissner and Philpott published their research. “When it comes to feelings, you have real problems…You can say you’re angry…But other feelings are so subtle and complex….”, says the wife of the retired worker who had gone deaf and used to communicate with his family through the sign language. The family had signs for mirror, shave, quiet, fish, church, etc. In case of difficulty in expressing emotions, his wife asked him to simply write down what he wanted to say.

During their study, Meissner and Philpott had observed that automation in industries drastically reduced the usage of sign languages among workers. Despite the practice of using sign languages in less noisy industries like those in radio stations, the system is rare to be found today.

-by Maariyah, an intern at NewsGram. Twitter: @MaariyahSid

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ILO Calling for Revisions to Address Physical, Psychological Problems Stemming from Changing Job World

U.N. labor agency says existing methods of protecting workers from accidents and disease are not good enough to deal with new occupational hazards arising from changes in the nature of work

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FILE - A worker programs a tablet to control SAM, a semi-automated mason, as it works on the facade of a school in the south Denver suburb of Englewood, Colorado, Feb. 27, 2018. VOA

The U.N. labor agency says existing methods of protecting workers from accidents and disease are not good enough to deal with new occupational hazards arising from changes in the nature of work. The International Labor Organization (ILO) is calling for revisions to address physical and psychological problems stemming from the changing job world.

In a new report, ILO estimates find 2.78 million workers die from occupational accidents and work-related diseases each year. It says more than 374 million people are injured or fall ill every year through work-related accidents. The cost to the world economy from work days lost is nearly four percent of global Gross Domestic Product.

The ILO’s report warns the changes and dangers posed by an increase in technology could result in a worsening of that situation. It says new measures must be implemented to deal with the psycho-social risks, work-related stress and non-communicable diseases resulting from new forms of work.

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FILE – Technicians make final inspections to vehicles on an assembly line at the Nissan Canton Assembly Plant, in Canton, Mississippi, March 19, 2018. VOA

It says digitization, artificial intelligence, robotics and automatization require new monitoring methods to protect workers.

Manal Azzi, an ILO Technical Specialist on Occupational Safety and Health, says that on the one hand, new technology is freeing workers from many dirty, dangerous jobs. On the other, she says, the jobs can raise ethical concerns.

She told VOA surveillance of workers has become more intrusive, leading them to work longer hours, a situation that may not be ethical.

“Also, different monitoring systems that workers wear. Before, you would punch in, punch out. Now, you could wear bands on your wrist that show how many hours you are actually working in a production line. And, there is even discussion of introducing implants, where workers can be continuously surveyed on their production processes,” she said.

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ILO estimates find 2.78 million workers die from occupational accidents and work-related diseases each year. Wikimedia

Azzi said a host of mental problems could be introduced by new work environments. The report also focuses on changes in demographics. It says employers have to adapt to the physical needs of older workers, who may need training to safely operate equipment.

ALSO READ: USAID Launches $183mn Cleanup at Vietnam Storage Site for Agent Orange

Another area of concern is climate change. The ILO is positive about the green jobs being introduced. But it says care must be taken to protect people from warmer temperatures that increase risks, including air pollution, heat stress, and newly emerging diseases.

In the past, creating a safer working environment focused on the prevention of risks. Authors of the report say the ILO today needs to anticipate the risks. They say new skills and information about safety and health in the workplace have to be learned at an earlier age. Before young people apply for a job, they say, they should know their rights. The power of knowledge, they say, will help protect employees in the workplace. (VOA)