Cognition Versus Muscle Memory


By Phil La Duke

My romantic vis-a-vis works as a seamstress making hot air balloons. The work is hard especially for people just learning to operate an industrial sewing machine, pulling heavy fabric into position and using the tools of the trade. She was telling my a while back about a new worker who was struggling because she was trying to cognitively override her muscle memory. You see, while the work is never easy, you’re muscles and brain get into sort of a familiar rhythm and when you think too much it muddles things up and makes the job harder.

It’s funny when you think about it. We spend so much time trying to get our workers to be aware of the hazards around them and to think about what they are doing, when in some cases thinking is our worst enemy.

It’s a bit like becoming aware of your tongue. It sits in your mouth all day minding its own business and you don’t think about it and then suddenly you become aware of your tongue and it’s torture; okay maybe that’s just me, but I have experienced first hand the power of muscle memory, work hardening, and the danger of cognition in a repetitive process.

When I worked the assembly line way back in 1980, Safety really hadn’t taken hold. OSHA had been around for over 15 years but it wasn’t really clear to many employees what had to be done to meet regulations. I wasn’t required to wear safety glasses or steel-toed shoes (although I did—even then I was a safety nerd), in fact i was discouraged from wearing them by my coworkers who spread myths about PPE (how I was better off without steel toed because if I got my foot run over by a fork-truck they would cut my toes off. I judged that dropping one of the 15 pound metal parts on my foot was a far more likely scenario, and that if I got my foot run over by a fork-truck it didn’t much matter what footwear I had on at the time.

My work was physically demanding and the boredom of doing the same tasks over and over again was greatly fatiguing. My job consisted of at least ten steps that I had to do the exact same way, once every 55 seconds. My job was to attach a seat lock(the metal club-like plate) to either a recliner mechanism or to the base of the seat. Recliners were tougher and required more steps. In less than an hour the cotton gloves I was given to handle sharp metal parts were both filthy and shredded, but it was absolutely forbidden for anyone to have a second set of gloves (heaven forbid the company might have spent an extra $1.50 keeping me safe. So I performed between 10 and 15 steps making 850 sets of seats a day (1700 individual seats).

My first 90 days (significant because that was the probationary period before I was officially in the Union) were hell. I would come home filthy, blowing metal shaving from my nose multiple times an hour, coughing up the dust and grime that I inhaled for 8 or 9 hours. We were never told when “line time” (the time at which we could go home) was until 1:30 and my heart always sank when the loud speaker would sputter Line time for today…9 hours across the board. Talk about stressful conditions. But worst of all, when after showering and washing my clothes I would lie down and try to take a name, but the room seemed to be rolling past me like an assembly line. Throughout those 90 days my hands would lock up on the weekends and I would literally have to pry them apart. I was miserable but I wasn’t going to give up that kind of money after working so hard to get the job.

Eventually my arms started to look like Popeye, my forearms bulged, and my biceps gave the cheap t-shirts I bought wore once and threw away a run for its money. To this day I have to be careful not to crush someone’s hand when I shake it because the screw gun required me to squeeze an oversized trigger some 4250 times a day, more with overtime. Even so I came home tired and sore and hated every bloody moment of that job. But I did it well. I could do it half asleep, I could do it drunk (drinking on the line was rampant but I rarely partook, the last thing I want to do after a couple of drinks was hump an assembly line), I could do it hung over, I could do it miserably ill with the flu and each time to spec and at rate; so nobody much cared what condition I was in. I was able to do all those things without thinking, but if someone threw a monkey wrench into the works and I had to THINK about what I had to do it slowed things down, introduced a high probability of defects and injuries. It was in cases like this that I would get injured.

If you (or me from the future) would have lectured me about making safe choices or some nimrod suck up would have “observed me” things would have gotten real in a hurry. In my world of that time, you don’t get to lecture me, or observe me or tell me much of anything until you’ve done that job, and not for a cycle, or an hour, or a day, no do it for a week and then tell me I’m not doing it safely enough for you.

Of course I could have been better trained. Of course I could have had proper equipment, but I played the cards I dealt and if I didn’t think about things I could do my job just fine. I wonder how many jobs like that are still out there.