Wednesday, Oct. 15, 1986, started out as any other day. I woke up, ate a bowl of cereal, dressed and went to work at the neighbor's dairy farm. It was cold and wet outside so I wore a snowmobile suit and borrowed my stepbrother's new boots since we were working outside harvesting feed for the winter.
I was unloading chopped corn from a forage wagon, onto an elevator where a liquid containing molasses was added as the silage was unloaded into a silo. A tractor is used to transport the wagon as well as supplying power for unloading the wagon.
The tractor provides power to the wagon via a rotating shaft more commonly known as a P.T.O. This shaft telescopes between the wagon and tractor and has a shield that does the same.
In 1986, most shields were made of steel and subject to abuse, once dented and not functioning properly, were removed, as it was in this case. Near the end of the load, with less material, the process can be accelerated. I engaged the levers on the wagon to increase speed and spun around to give the tractor more throttle.
How can I remember the details of a specific day 14 years ago? Like most trauma victims, if you survive, it is a day you never forget.
At 10:05 a.m. I was lying on the ground facing the back of the 100 horse power John Deere thinking I was going to die. The snowmobile suit I was wearing for warmth was wrapped tightly around my chest and neck cutting off my air supply and circulation to my right arm. My right leg was severed at the hip and wrapped around the shaft just above my head and my left leg was lying in an "S" shape between my knee and ankle. I was fortunate the P.T.O. shaft broke at the end closest to the tractor or it would have still been turning, and I would have surely died.
My first priority was to loosen the clothing from around my neck so I could breath. Sounds easy right? To do this I needed to roll over the shaft, pick it up and set it next to me. This had to be repeated several times. The only problem was the extreme pain when I moved my remaining left leg, but through an act of God, I accomplished this. Once I could breath, I started to get cold, partly from the temperature but mostly due to shock. I was able to pull the remaining snowmobile suit down to my waist helping keep in what little body heat I had left, and then I laid back and yelled for help. I frequently looked at my watch wiping away the clay mud and liquid molasses that had a sickeningly sweet smell.
Around 10:50 a.m., one of the owners of the farm realized it was taking me too long to return to the field with the empty wagon and he came to find out where I was. When he arrived, he asked if I was going to be OK while he went to call for help. I told him I didn't have any choice.
Though I was fading in and out, I remember the ambulance getting stuck, the ride to the local hospital, the helicopter ride to Hamot Medical Center and talking to the doctors and nurses in the trauma room. The last thing I remember was the gas mask they put on me before I was wheeled into the operating room.
What lay ahead was unknown to me. I was grateful to be alive and even while laying in the intensive care, I vowed I would be down-hill skiing again. The primary orthopedic surgeon doubted I would walk again and said I would have a prosthetic leg that would be more of a standing platform. I remember looking down at my left leg after the first operation and seeing it with external pins and rods with my knee laying straight and my foot leaning out 90 degrees.
During that two month stay I underwent six surgeries and physical therapy twice a day. Family and friends visited everyday. Even though I would be out of it from the drugs, they continued to put up with my lack of hospitality.
After six weeks, I was ready to go home and I let my opinion be known to the doctors at every opportunity. I was released on Dec. 11, under the condition that I would stay at home in bed. I had adapted to the wheel chair by this time and thought I could persuade some friends to take me Christmas shopping.
We agreed, with what the assistance of what is called an external-fixator on my leg, we should go to the mall closest to the hospital, just in case anything happened. Bad idea. While rolling around the end of an isle I ran into my doctors nurse. Oops!
A New Beginning
Since then, I have recovered well. After being asked to give a talk at the opening of a safety camp sponsored by Progressive Farming magazine, I saw how my story could benefit others.
Working in the industrial environment over the past several years I have sat through meetings dedicated to plant safety. After witnessing the reaction of co-workers leaving the meeting, I felt my story could compliment the other training tools available to companies.
I have a different view of safety training. Though most videos that re-enact possible accidents are obviously staged, I can still imaging the pain as though it were real. I know what it is like to be a healthy, fully able person and then have to rely on people to wash your face and empty your urinal.
I wonder why workers are willing to risk their lives, co-workers lives or their family's lives for two extra minutes or five dollars extra.
There will always be accidents. Nothing in life is guaranteed. I just don't want anyone who can avoid it, to be hurt on-the-job or at home. I have talked with several people who say they couldn't handle my situation and others who think that maybe its not too bad. Unless you have experienced the emotional and physical pain of a traumatic injury, you cannot know how you will react. Could you handle the looks, the comments and the unavoidable questions of others? Could you handle checking your dignity at the door of the E.R.? Are you able to deal with the limited employment opportunities for the disabled? These are only the tip of the iceberg of potential question that, if injured, you will face.
The program I developed based on my story, stresses three points. The first of these is "Company safety policy, why comply?" My accident occurred with no policy in place. Companies spend thousands of dollars on developing, implementing and training employees. The workers should view this as their company trying to "stack the deck" in their favor.
The second: "Is increased production worth the risk of defeating guards, shields and personal protection?" Manufacturers put shields in place because they know without them someone will get hurt. When a company buys a machine, it knows the output with the guarding in place. Why should we defeat the guarding? Is putting out an extra five, 10 or 1,000 parts for your employer worth your life, limb or family? If I had let the machine run at the same speed over the entire day, I may have gotten one extra load completed. I can say from personal experience, it is not worth it!
The third point: "How can complacency and inattention affect the lives of the workers?" Seasoned veterans think they are immune to getting hurt. In their mind, they have operated the machines for 10, 15 or 25 years. If anything was going to happen, it would have happened by now. Younger employees may have the "Superman" mentality. This is the category I fell into. Properly trained, both will have more respect for equipment.
In my accident, the equipment was not properly guarded, though it had been used hundreds of times without incident. The final straw was when I got careless and wasn't paying attention. You can be the best at anything but ... even Tiger Woods unarguably the best in golf, if not focused, can lose. Your only as good as you are at that moment.
While the reason for wanting to reduce the number of work-related accidents may be different for myself than for the employer, our goal remains the same -- keeping workers safe.
After several years of recovering and rehabilitation, Kevin, walking once again, succeeded in the start-up and operation of a restaurant franchise, built and flies Ultra-light airplanes and relearned to down-hill ski and water ski. In addition, he has worked in the tool and die trade and built his own home where he resides with his wife and inspiration, Jessica. Kevin is commits his time and energy to sharing his story to industry across the nation. He can be reached by email at [email protected]