By Bill Bowman
My workplace injury was similar to most members of the Threads of Life family, with one major exception: I was lucky! Why? First, because I only had one arm and not two in the brake press when it activated. Second, since I was working alone, I was lucky I did not faint, dying on a factory floor in a pool of blood.
The injury happened in the summer between my first and second year of university. At the age of 19, I felt fortunate to get a job in a Hamilton rail car manufacturing company making three times what I was earning as a weekend maintenance man at a nursing home. It would pay for my tuition, books and all the fun things you do at university.
Assigned to work on a small brake press, similar to one pictured here, I located the “V” shaped dies which would form the 12”x 16” pieces of 1/8 ” steel to the correct angle. The male and female sides of the dies weighed between 60-70lb each. Once set in place and secured in the press, the “gauge” or bracket positioned behind the contact area was adjusted and tightened with a wrench so that each part is “pressed” or bent correctly.
While adjusting the gauge, holding it with one hand and pulling on the wrench with the other, I stepped on the unguarded foot pedal and activated the machine. I heard the machine begin to cycle, saying “Oh shit” and then could hear and feel the crushing of the bones in my left arm. When the press raised, my left hand was on the other side of the machine. With blood squirting to the ceiling, I picked up my left arm and ran about 75 feet, screaming for help. The coworker who stopped me, sat me down and tightened his belt around my arm. He may have saved my life. After six weeks of failed attempts to reattach my arm and hand, the final amputation was made where the die met my arm.
The injury has impacted my life, but I was fortunate to have extremely supportive family and friends. At one point, my father said he would give me his left hand if he could and he meant it! But perhaps more than anyone, the informal mentoring of my Uncle Jim Moodie aided my recovery and acceptance of what had happened. Living in Montreal, Uncle Jim was a WW2 veteran and an amputee. As a member of the Canadian Army, in what was named the Devil’s Brigade, he stepped on land mine and lost a leg below the knee. While on family visits and camping trips in the summer, he never displayed any signs of a disability. For example, he would remove his prosthetic and hop down to the water and swim like everyone else. He was also an active volunteer of the War Amps of Canada. I can still hear Uncle Jim and Aunt Mildred saying “You just have to make the most of what you’ve got left”. He lived by that saying and I try to do the same.
By 2003 when Threads of Life began my passion for injury prevention, particularly with young workers, had begun. It was sparked while attending a local IAPA (now known as WSPS) conference. The folks involved were all very enthusiastic about injury prevention. Everyone I met from the IAPA, especially Debbie Glenn (who tragically also became a family member) and Maureen Shaw their CEO, welcomed me with open arms to their active group of volunteers. With their support and that of my employer, many presentations of the Young Workers Awareness Program (YWAP) were completed as well as participation in their local volunteer network. With the exception of these folks, the realization of the impact of workplace tragedies on an individual and their families was generally not well understood by most in our community, perhaps since they had not experienced such a tragedy. Soon after Threads of Life formed, I started involvement as a member of the Speakers Bureau and later a Volunteer Family Guide.
Surprisingly to me, I continue to occasionally relive what occurred on that fateful day, the horror of it, the impact it had on others and what could have been done differently by me or others to prevent it. Then facing reality, it passes, and I realize nothing is different, as the past cannot be changed. Fortunately, then and now I am supported on my ongoing journey by my family, friends and all those who are family members of Threads of Life. Thank you.
Sadly, many workers and their families and friends continue to experience a devastating loss as a result of a workplace injury; however, they have not had the childhood experiences and mentor which definitely aided my recovery. Although their family and friends try to understand and provide support they may not be equipped or recognize what could be said or done to help their loved one and/or themselves on their journey of healing. This is why Threads of Life is so important for those who are beginning or continuing their journey of healing and therefore my involvement will continue as long as I am able.