Shake Hands with Danger (1980) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • A cautionary training film for those who operate and repair heavy equipment. We watch vignettes of men taking short cuts in their work, doing things they aren't trained for, neglecting to warn a less experienced worker, using the wrong tool or a tool that's in disrepair, ignoring proper safety practices, trying to appear macho in front of fellow workers, thinking their reflexes are quicker than they are, working while distracted, and generally putting themselves and others at risk. The film is punctuated by the song, "Shakes Hands with Danger," the story of Three-Finger Joe. Filmed using Caterpillar equipment.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • At a construction site, a worker tells the operator of an earth-moving machine not to touch anything. Although the engine is running, he climbs into the conveyer-belt part of the machine until a foreman shouts for him to get down, and demonstrates how easily the conveyer mechanism could start. The worker admits to not thinking, and the foreman hands him a wrench, saying "Shake hands with danger." This segues into the theme song, a warning against carelessness from someone who knows, now called "Three-finger Joe".

    An operator starts up another earth-mover, knocking off a mechanic, who says he could have been killed. The operator points out that before doing work, the mechanic should have taken the ignition key and posted a Do Not Operate tag.

    Cliff and his assistant move a barrel from a pickup truck to the bucket of a loader. Cliff asks the assistant to take the loader to the work area. The assistant says he's never operated that model before, but is sure he can do it. He fails to notice that the lever controlling the loader arm is in the engaged position, and as soon as he starts the engine the arm raises, lifting the back end of the pickup truck and damaging it.

    Chuck Hamlin is an experienced operator, who checks oil pressure and other gauges before working on a huge excavator. Everything is off, so he climbs to the top of the boom arm and starts work, despite having an unsteady foothold. Something slips, and he plummets to his death. The narrator (University of Kansas law professor Charles Oldfather) says he should have lowered the boom to ground level, if possible. In this case, the alternative was to establish a safe work platform. Another worker tries climbing down a ladder with tools in both hands, and also falls.

    Mechanic Harry Sanders has is mind on his son's knee surgery. He's hoping to knock off work a couple hours early to see him. He unlocks the differential and pulls one axle from the scraper he's working on, although the service manual says to pull both axles and disconnect the steering. Harry turns on the engine and begins stepping on the accelerator and brake pedals to get a feel for what's wrong. He's not concentrating on what he's doing, and accidentally turns the steering wheel. When the scraper jerks, he steps on the differential lock pedal instead of the brake, and the machine starts moving. It plows into a house under construction, wrecking it. If others had been nearby they could have been killed.

    Glenn Greenwood needs to remove a stuck pin, but instead of the right tool, his co-worker brings an old drift (a cylindrical metal bar) with chipped heads, and says to "give it a whack". Glenn knows taking a sledgehammer to a faulty surface is dangerous, but he and his friend are wearing safety glasses, and he doesn't want to spoil his macho image. So he whacks, and a metal chip breaks off and flies into his chest.

    The scene changes from construction sites to a machine shop. Red, a veteran welder, believes that greenhorns should learn by experience. Therefore, he doesn't bother to warn a younger co-worker that he's standing dangerously near a hot metal surface. The result is a badly burned arm. Later, Red is using a grinder, starting out with the correct safety gap, but not concerning himself with how the gap grows as the grinding wheel is worn down. When he uses the grinder on a small piece of metal, his hand now fits into the gap. Another verse of the theme song informs us that this is how the singer became Three-finger Joe.

    Returning to the world of earth movers, a mechanic fails to restrain the track on another machine before he loosens it at a high point. It unrolls in front of a passing man, who trips as he runs out of the way. (This looks a bit silly, since the track looks too small to have hurt him. Appearances could be deceiving, or perhaps doing this with the huge tracks on many earth-movers would have been too dangerous even for the stuntmen who play workers in this film.)

    Workers push a high-sprocketed machine onto a new set of tracks, although the recommended procedure is to change one track at a time. With no tracks and no blocking, the machine rolls down the slight downgrade, until it crashes into a parked truck. A worker doing routine maintenance ignores repeated warning about hot oil, and gets an arm covered with it.

    Bill takes the brake chamber off a loader and hands it to Stan. Bill needs to go to the dealer for parts, so he asks Stan to disassemble the chamber to save time. Stan has never read the service manual, so he doesn't know there's a spring under high tension that needs a tool to restrain it during disassembly. Luckily, the spring only smashes through the rear window of a pickup truck rather than through Stan's head.

    A worker decides it's OK to use gasoline as a cleaning fluid "just this one time". The driver of a passing machine stops to light a cigarette and tosses his match away. The result is a man on fire. Bill Myers has changed the bucket on a loader at least a hundred times, dulling his caution. The pin won't slide into position because the hold needs lubrication. There's no swab handy, so Bill applies the grease manually. The operator of the loader has an encounter with a wasp, in which he accidentally bumps a lever. Bill loses a hand.

    Ernie is working on a bulldozer blade, and has it propped up from the ground by a single, unstable, building block. It fails, and judging from where Ernie's foot was at the time, he must have lost at least one toe. Ted is working under a dump truck's raised bed, relying on the truck's hydraulics to keep it up. A foreman stops him and instructs him on placing the locking pins so he won't be a "goner" if the hydraulics should fail.

    Mechanic Bob Murray is working alone on an excavator with a dead engine. It's blocking other vehicles, and the foreman wants it moved out of the way immediately. With the engine dead, the brakes are engaged and the excavator can't be towed until Bob releases the final drive, enabling the huge machine to roll freely. After hooking it up with a tow line to a bulldozer, Bob releases the drive. This really should be a two-man operation, with another vehicle attached behind to provide braking, but that foreman was being very impatient. Bob gets in the bulldozer and starts towing, but on a downgrade he isn't towing anymore - the excavator is moving faster and finally pushes the bulldozer over, with Bob in it. He's very lucky to have escaped injury.

    The chief morals are that workers should know and heed all the safety information presented to them, and that to keep them from becoming inattentive to safety, there should be repeated training. Workers are encouraged to discuss other safety issues they saw in the film that weren't specifically addressed.

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