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January, 2008

Yuk Yuks

The Machines
Multifarious and vital participants
By  James Marck

Look no further than the anonymous plant accident to find hilarity through mishaps.
slightly more malevolent microcosm of the rest of the world, the plant is populated by good guys and bad guys. Like the real world, it contains a multitude of hazards. As prosaic as all this may be, it makes the plant as good a setting as any for heinous crime or dramatic heroism - indeed better than many because both can be close to hand and imminent.

Consider the machines that are the very tangible pulse of any plant. These babies can weigh in at several hundred tons, are often as large as a three bedroom bungalow, and are capable of altering the existing state of almost any material. And while the material itself can hurt you pretty badly, the machines rarely do. However if you want somebody killed off, the big machine is your weapon of choice.

You might be strapping off a bundle of newly-minted leaf springs when suddenly, the strapping gives and zip - you've given yourself a fancy duelling scar down one side of your face. Or a shear can buck a piece of stainless into your hand and nip off a finger. Kid's stuff, really. But when a four-ton press comes down on your head while you're levering a part out of a die-plate, your last thought isn't going to be "I'm gonna get some sweet workman's comp outta this." Yep, you're as dead as dead gets.

Wait, you say. These things can't happen in today's ultra safety-conscious world. There are safeguards and things like that. Okay. Modern factories are very safe and sophisticated. Plants on the other hand, still provide essentially the same services and products that they originally did in the last century. Ergo, most of the machines are as ancient and as fallible as dear old dad.

For all its power, size, and apparent impenetrability, a big machine can be crippled by a foreign object the size of your fingernail, disabled by a loose wire as flimsy as a paper clip, or crash with the gush of a sundered hydraulic hose. They are, despite their formidability, tuned to fine tolerances and subject to the grime and neglect that characterizes a plant's onus on productivity over perfection.

Thus, machines break, falter, and fail. So, if you, you little devil, want to see off some hapless fictive foil in a dramatic setting, look no further than the anonymous plant. It could look like the work of a slipped gear, metal fatigue, operator error, or sheer happenstance. But rest assured, amid the chaos and cacophony that constitutes the everyday life of a busy and overburdened plant, accidents can and do happen.

In the end, ask yourself which accidental scenario sounds more plausible: "He was cleaning his favourite gun, officer and it just went off - I guess he didn't know it was still loaded." Or, "I yelled out that I was going to start the machine and I was sure I heard him yell back 'Okay,' but there was a lot of noise and dust and I couldn't see clearly. By the time I heard him scream and the machine shut off, it was too late."

Polish up the details and one way or another your bad guy may have just got away with murder. Now it's up to your hero.

Read the previous part to this series.
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James Marck is a Toronto, Canada freelance writer. Email at:

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