Former sawmill worker left with limited movement in arm after it became trapped in moving conveyor belt gives talk at day of mourning in Prince George, British Columbia, calls on workers, employers, to take all necessary steps to make workplaces safe
PRINCE GEORGE, British Columbia
April 30, 2014
(Prince George Citizen)
– His arm snapped in half and trapped in a moving conveyer belt and a running belt chewing the skin right off his back, Mark Johnson wasn't sure if he was going to make it home alive.
Johnson had been cleaning underneath a piece of machinery at a sawmill in Maple Ridge when suddenly his arm got stuck in the machine. The pain was excruciating and he cried out for help, but no one could hear him over the noise of the chipper above his head.
"I screamed the whole time, I screamed until I had no more voice left," Johnson said Monday as he shared his story with those gathered in Prince George for the workers' day of mourning. "I felt this overwhelming feeling like I was going to die."
For 20 minutes the conveyer belt kept running, twisting an ever tightening knot around his arm. He quickly lost feeling in his arm, but the machine continued to eat away at the skin on his back.
"I looked at the sky as said, 'Please God make it stop,' " Johnson said. "After I said that the machine shut down.
"The equipment stopped moving, but Johnson still wasn't safe. He kept crying out for help, but none of his co-workers were in earshot. To this day, nearly eight years after the incident, Johnson doesn't know how the machine shut itself off as none of his fellow workers hit the off button.
It wasn't until his friend came out to find out why the chipper was no longer working that someone was able to help Johnson and cut him free. He was rushed to hospital where after four surgeries over 15 days, his arm was saved. But he's left with very limited movement - only enough to move his wrist and tuck his arm behind his back.
"I got very lucky," he said. "I'm glad I'm here to be able to tell you my story."
Johnson was one of a handful of speakers who shared their own stories about workplace injuries or the loss of loved ones. The day of mourning is held each year to remember those workers who were killed or seriously injured on the job as well as pressure employers and government to make sure working conditions are made safer.
In 2013 there were 128 worker-related deaths in B.C., 67 of them from occupational diseases, 39 from traumatic injuries and 22 from motor vehicle accidents.
Coun. Albert Koehler recalled when he was just entering the workforce four decades ago when he had his brush with serious injury. He was cleaning out an area at the back of a skidder when the machine suddenly started running.
"This wheel was rubbing at my body and taking off all my clothes," he recalled. "I was crying and shouting loudly and then a senior mechanic came by and stopped the machine - I still have the scars . . . it was very, very close.
"Koehler wondered aloud why these type of situations continue to occur at work sites around the province.
"I believe we're all together in this," he said. "We all have to think about what can be done. Is it WorkSafeBC? Is the employer? Is it more awareness? Is it better education? I think it's all of it and all of us need to take responsibility."
The four worker deaths from the two 2012 sawmill explosions in northern B.C. were on the minds of many during the ceremony held at the workers' memorial, located at the intersection of Queensway and Patricia.
Ronda Roche spoke passionately about the loss of her husband Glenn just over two years ago when Lakeland Mills in Prince George had its devastating explosion. She said the day of mourning is a time to reflect on those workers killed or injured on the job.
"I think of my husband every day," she said. "And today brings awareness and a chance for other people to think of him as well."
She also renewed her call for a public inquiry into what happened at Lakeland and hopes the provincial coroner will hold separate inquests into the explosions in Burns Lake and Prince George during the first few months of 2012.
Johnson survived his injury, but needed to go through months of often painful rehabilitation and recovery - including times when he had suicidal thoughts. Eventually Johnson reached the point where he became determined to make the most of his situation. He learned how to play baseball with one arm and continues to play and coach the game he loves.
"I finished the last season with two arms and started the next with one," he said.
He's also dedicated his life to telling his story to ensure others similar injuries don't happen again and workers and their employers take all the necessary steps to make workplaces safe.
"I believe everyone needs to hear this, especially the young people," he said. "How many young people do you know who just fly into a job and say 'don't worry about it.' "
© Copyright 2014