by Peter Rasmussen

Wages of fear

Posted by Peter Rasmussen on March 12, 2007

People risk their lives to make the stuff we doodle on.
Large industrial sites like paper mills often proudly display at their entrance how few accidents the company has had in the current years, only so many severed toes or eye accidents or amputations.

Before I became a film producer, before I started writing, before I studied cinematography, before I worked in the theatre, I was an apprentice scientific instrument maker. One side effect of being lost is that you find yourself in strange places.

As part of our studies my class visited a very large paper mill in the south of Sydney. We were taken to the first floor of a very large building. Inside was one of the plants many paper making machines. It was about ten metres wide and about as long as a soccer field. As it happened one of the mills young trainees was being shown how to start up the machine. He was a lanky, gormless lad. The fellow showing him the “ropes” was a tubby little man in his forties.

They start it up. Many powerful motors drive many huge rollers, many tons each. Much noise. Had to raise our voices to be heard. In theory the machine should do everything from go to woe without any intervention, in theory. The paper starts out as slush in a trough as wide as the machine. The first section is a flat wire mesh conveyer about twenty metres long. The automatic system feeds a narrow stream of goop out onto the moving mesh. The goop is heated and dried rapidly. In this short distance it has been transformed into paper dry enough to hang together. This twenty centimetre wide strip of paper is supposed to automatically lace through the twenty or thirty rollers that lay ahead in the giant machine, in theory.

The rollers are about a metre in diameter and as wide as the machine. They weigh many tons each. A rubber drive ban leads the paper up into the first stack of rollers. It laces in okay and misses the second stack. The strip of paper feeds at about fifteen kilometres an hour into the floor below us. The paper is a heavy brown paper not quite heavy enough to be cardboard. The machine can not be stoped. If it were, a day could be wasted cleaning goop off the machine and resetting the system.

The short, tubby man holds a wooden paddle that looks like a wide paintbrush with no bristles. He demonstrates to the trainee how to sweep the continuously flowing paper up into the next tower of rollers with his hand. Jabbing at it with the wooden paddle to mash it in between the huge spinning rollers. The trainee has a go but has no luck. He’s a bit coy, not wanting his clothes pressed while they’re still on him. The tradesman takes over and gets the paper into the second stack of rollers. These stacks are about three times as high as the men. The paper successfully feeds through this stack but again misses the next one. The trainee tries again but again the tradesman has to finish the job.

The final tower of rollers are there to squeeze the very last vestige of moisture out of the paper so as well as being incredibly heavy they are forced together under great pressure. When the paper hits this stack it’s creased and folded over in places. The rollers bounce and crack like thunder. The concrete floor we are standing on shakes with the vibration.

Because the feed process has taken too long the paper has not yet reached the final take up reel. But the automatic system has already started to widen the feed. Now goop ten metres wide is being turned into paper that is feeding through all those rollers. But after the last stack a ten metre wide sheet of perfectly good, sailable paper is pouring down into the floor below the one we are on at fifteen kilometres per hour.

The tubby little man pulls out a packing knife and crouches to go under the on-rushing paper. He reaches up with the knife and starts a new feed, which he attempts to throw onto the now furiously spinning take up reel. He misses. It’s hard for him to see. The paper is in the way. Again the knife goes up. He throws. It catches. He does a duck walk under the rushing paper to the other side so finally the full width feeds up onto the take up reel. In five or ten minutes the reel is full. A gantry crane lifts the tonnage of paper to a stack of about a dozen other rolls of paper.

And then they do it all again.


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