Thursday, March 26, 2015

Construction worker builds new life

Taurean WashingtonA ditch box resembles a huge steel sandwich. Two eight-foot-long steel panels are held a few feet apart by metal rods. An excavator lowers the box sideways into a deep and narrow ditch. Inside the sandwich, where the jam would be, and often far below the surface, workers connect pipes.

The boxes hold back hundreds of tons of dirt, which can crush the ribcage and leave the victim to suffocate underground. Ditch boxes are also called trench shields. Given the instability of soil and the risks of working around heavy equipment, some workers call them coffins.

Taurean Washington, above, started at Washington State University in 1999. He was 18, and spent very little time studying. He dropped out in 2003. He went back to the West Side, found a job in construction, and ended up in a ditch box. Over the next 11 years, he got promoted from general laborer to foreman, but still worked in the box.

“I almost got buried twice,” he said. Last September, he escaped by leaping onto a pipe, and gave serious thought to changing jobs.

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It wasn’t only the danger, and the three back injuries. He is married now, lives in SeaTac, Wash., and wants to have a family. “I was working 50 to 60 hours a week, from the first sunny day to the last sunny day,” he said. “That’s not a schedule to be present as a father.”

With the support of his wife, Taurean left his job, and, in spring 2015, enrolled at WSU’s Global Campus. He’s now 33, taking five courses and studying full time. “I wake up and start doing stuff, and I do it all day,” he said. “I wind down at the end of the week and start over on Monday.”

When Taurean enrolled, he thought Global Campus courses involved mainly watching lectures online. But four out of his five courses involve reading materials, then discussing them with professors and other students. “Turns out I’m doing the best in the four classes that don’t have lectures,” he said. “It’s actually a much better format; you get a better grasp of what they want you to learn.”

He is majoring in both social sciences and criminal justice, and will graduate in May 2016. “The plan is to start working on kids then,” he said. “And on finding a job.” Taurean is an accomplished mixed martial arts fighter, and hopes those skills, along with his WSU diploma, will be the one-two punch that leads to his ideal position:

“I’ve always wanted to be in law enforcement,” he said. “I’m hoping to become a defense tactics instructor for a police department.”