The New Rendering ‘Bots

The best thing to happen to me was when I got laid up from an accident at the plant.  It wasn’t all that bad, but something like that was bound to happen with me being there so long and all. I was on the rendering floor and wasn’t watching where I was going, I slipped into a drain and broke both my shins just below the knee.

With my pension (yeah, I’d been there that long) plus the money the plant paid me for my disability I was able to go to college and learn to write fairly well (if I do say so myself).  At least I was able to get away from the plant before I got myself killed and get on as a reporter at the local paper. I really didn’t want to leave town, since I lived here so long, even with the accident at the plant.

Yep, when you live in a town that has a meatpacking plant as its sole industry, you get used to the idea of accidental death.  People can slip on the rendering floor (hell, I did), get “hooked” or “bonked”—that kind of shit happens all the time.  Heck, the plant is a place chock full of equipment that, to be honest, is there to kill things and sometimes those things aren’t livestock.

Up until about a year ago you might find a small story in the paper maybe once or twice a month where some poor sombitch met his end at the plant.  Fatalities happen—OSHA be damned.  Well, OSHA be damned up to a point, anyway.  Insurance covers most of the plant’s liabilities and they make money hand over fist, so they the plant can afford the premiums, or can out-and-out pay off the families.  It’s amazing how cash can be so absorbent when it comes to soaking up tears and blood.

Come to think of it, it was just about a year ago this last May that the management at the plant figured that maybe it was time to cut down on the fatalities.  There were some new executives that came in when ownership of the plant changed hands that felt that they could save money by automating some of the more dangerous jobs at the plant.  It would definitely lower the insurance rates and could cut down on the payments to bereaved families.  Also, seeing as how none of the kids wanted to go to work for the plant when they got out of school it was getting tough to find new workers.  Since things at the plant were so “dangerous” automation looked like a good move.

One of the most dangerous jobs at the plant was having to hold the cows or the pigs while another fellah whacked them over the head with a sledgehammer to stun them for slaughter (we called it getting ‘bonked’).  It seems that with all the moisture in the air from the floors getting sprayed to wash away all the gory stuff and all the heat from the bodies of the animals, the killing floor could get kind of foggy.  From time to time the guy with the hammer would take a swing with his hammer and—wham!  He’d accidentally hit the wrong head.  I know, it sounds pretty gruesome, but life is hard sometimes.

Heck, before I got laid up back in the eighties, I must’ve killed 3, 4, maybe a half dozen men when I was a stunner.  It sure did make the job tougher for a while after each time especially when it was a friend, but a man’s got to feed his family.  They tried helmets, but most of the stunners just had too good of a swing—the least they’d do is break a guy’s neck. And the helmets didn’t help the visibility none, either, which led to more guys slipping or getting ‘hooked’.

Anyways, the folks out at the plant talked to these fellahs from Japan who’d done a lot of work automating automobile assembly lines and asked them if they could come up with a  “kill-floor management solution”—machines to bonk cows and pigs over the head to you and me.

Well, they went away and worked on it and came up with this funny contraption that looked like a drill press that had these two arms cocked behind it holding what looked like a hammer.  The machine would detect a cow or pig in front of it, bring its arms up over the top of it and—Thunk!  Hello, pork chops.  Another neat thing about these robots was that they’d hop around on the floor on a single hydraulic sort of chicken leg scanning for a pig or cow and it wouldn’t even take a swing until it found one.

Well, management was so pleased with what they saw that they shut down the plant for a couple of weeks to install 5 of the suckers.  Nobody made too much fuss, seeing how everybody got full pay while the work went on.  Everybody was pretty happy to get back to work when the installation was done, though, that is until a couple of “kinks” were found in the robots.

It seems that some fellahs had the job of herding the animals onto the kill floor and, since some animals could get kind of stubborn, sometimes had to go out on the floor itself to get them in there.  Well, it also turned out that the robots weren’t too good at telling the difference between a cow and a herder and—I guess you know the rest.  That first week the plant lost 4 men, so they shut her down and told those Japanese fellahs to try again.

Now, the plant management had been pretty smart when they’d negotiated that contract with that Japanese engineering company.  They put it in the contract that each day that the plant was closed from a robot problem for the first six months after installation the engineering company had to pay the operating expenses and for the plant as well as any lost profits.  Believe you me—those fellahs from Japan worked up a solution double-quick.

What they came up with was the badge.  It had a scanner symbol on it that the robots could recognize. Everybody who worked at the plant had to wear one, even if they didn’t work on the rendering floor (just to be safe).  The way it worked was that if the robot scanned a moving creature it would check to see if it had a badge on, if it didn’t—Thwack!  From moo to meat in no time flat.

There was only one more minor accident (well, it wasn’t minor to the guy it happened to) about a month into the evaluation period.  It seems a fellah was working on the ventilation system with his back turned to the kill floor, and one of the bots (as they had come to be known) sneaked up on him before he could turn around and show his badge and—Pow!  Time to cut a bereavement check to the family.  From that time onward, everybody wore a kind of vest that had the “no-kill” symbol displayed on the front and back.

Then things really settled down.  The remaining  five months of the trial period went by without a hitch.  Heck, there was hardly any news around here at all anymore, seeing as how the most that happened at the plant was the occasional minor accident.  Then folks from other meat packing plants all over the world stated showing up to see how to cut down on their accidental deaths.  It seemed that our town would go down in the news as a success story.  The plant was making money hand over fist, production was up nearly 30% from before the robots were added and the company didn’t have to pay any bereavement money.  It even looked like the insurance company was going to drop their premiums—if you can believe those tight-fisted bastards would ever do thing like that.  Even after the evaluation period was over and the Japanese engineering company left town, things couldn’t have gone easier at the plant.

Then one day all hell broke loose.  It was still kind of foggy on the kill floor (as it always is), so no one noticed that any of the robots had slipped out until one of the line bosses further on in the plant noticed that the carcass count was way down for his shift.  So, he called up the kill floor manager to ask what the deal was.

The day shift was just about over, but the kill floor manager said he’d look into the problem before heading home (after all, not meeting quota would cut into his bonus check, too).  The status board had all 5 machines’ status lights just blinking away as each successful whack was reported by radio remote.  But the carcass conveyor leading to the next room had more than half its hooks.  It figured!  The damned machines were pasting the pigs and cows, they just weren’t hanging them up for skinning and cleaning—a bug in their program. So they shut down the line to take a look.

After defogging the room, it turned out that bots 1 and 4 were still on the floor merrily performing their necessary (but gory) task, bots 2, 3, and 5, on the other hand, were missing.  It was then that somebody noticed the open door to the outdoor “smoking lounge”.  It must’ve been one of the employees forgot to close one of the doors on the kill floor after coming back in from a smoke break

Well first off, they found three employees got whacked out in the parking lot.  It seems they hadn’t put on their vests yet on their way in for the next shift.  But that was just the beginning, the bots didn’t just stick around the parking lot waiting for cattle to show up—they were programmed to seek out their targets and seek they did.

I was listening to the police scanner that afternoon when I heard something outside the normal speed trappers reporting in out on old 6.  It seems all hell had broken loose.  There was nothing but panicked voices coming through on the scanner.  All I could make out was that something terrible was going on down on Main. Main was only three blocks away from the paper, I grabbed my fedora with the “press” card in it and headed out the door at a dead run—I didn’t want to get scooped.

I got there late for all the action that had happened, and considering that I wasn’t an employee of the plant with a vest and all, that turned out to be a lucky break for me, though I didn’t know it at the time.  It seems that there were a half a dozen people dead right there on the sidewalks over about 3 blocks.  I talked to Barney Glass who runs a barbershop and he said he saw the whole thing.

It was terrible.  These folks were just out on the street minding their own business, when these machines just hopped up to them and bonked each of them on the noggin—just as neat as you please.  Sheriff Thompson was there with three of his deputies trying to make sense of everything when some folks from the plant showed up and told them about the bots getting loose.  Then it all made sense.

Somebody got the bright idea that the local radio station (“KOWS—live stock reports and so much more of what you need”) should tell everybody in town to stay home and not go outside.

Some of the guys from the plant rounded up the ‘bots and got them back into the plant. More checks were cut to cover the mess and the company tried to pass on the expense (and it was bad considering that most of the victims didn’t even work at the plant and 3 of them were from out of town, and their folks started lawyering up…).

Turns out, though, that the Japanese fellas explicitly wrote into the contract that they were not responsible for any accidental death or injury caused by the ‘bots off company grounds. Besides, they were getting tired of being stuck with all the expenses, it was no longer profitable for them to come over here and fix the damned things. There were no more enhancements to be made to the ‘bots without a new contract, and after all the excitement, the company was fresh out of money to do any more experimenting.

The town held a meeting with the executives from the plant right there and all. Lots of people got to shouting. People wanted to keep the jobs in town, but they wanted to be safe. The plant needed to make money and didn’t have a lot left for more safety measures.

Then little 7 year old Sally Groves came up with a solution that would be low cost, make the plant a safe place to work with the new ‘bots and keep everybody in town employed. It was really simple, see.

So, now everybody (even the dogs and cats) in town wears one of the “no-kill” vests all the time.  It never hurts to be too cautious.  Sure, the bots’ll get out every once in a while and all one of the town folks has to do is call up the plant and they’ll send somebody out to guide the bot back to the floor and nobody gets hurt.  Least ways nobody who lives here in town gets hurt, visitors are fair game, unless they want to rent a vest…

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