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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters


Vernon Perry

The operator at a Southland fibreboard plant was off work for four months after being caught in a roller. He told PETER BATEMAN about the incident which could have cost him his life.

I’ve worked 16 years at the plant. It’s the best job I’ve had. I’m a qualified chef. Before that I was a slaughterman. Spent a lot of years down at the local freezing works. To go from a job where it’s very physical work, to a high pressure job like being a chef, to factory work – it’s just stable, it’s peace of mind and good colleagues to work with. Even with my accident, most people would think with that experience you’d want to get out. But I still love it.

WHAT HAPPENED ON THAT DAY IN DECEMBER 2016?

I was operating the press and doing my checks. It’s a volatile environment, you can have fire because of the dust, so I was checking and cleaning as I was going, to get rid of any fire risk around the hot press. I moved to where the fibre was being put on the continuous conveyor belt and found fibre dropout building up around one of the rollers.

It’s part and parcel, we just clean the area and come back in an hour and clean again. But this one time I got tangled up in the vacuum hose, the hose touched the conveyor and got sucked into the roller and me with it.

Nine times out of ten I had the vacuum hose in front of me and if anything was to happen it would just get pulled out of my hands and taken away, but with it looping around behind me, when it got caught it put me off balance and in I went.

The conveyor was doing 55m/minute. In the blink of an eye my arm had gone through the roller right up to my shoulder and my head hit it. I heard the bones pop.

The belt had a bit of give and I managed to get my arm out. It was luck. If there had been more tension on the belt it would’ve been game over I think. The guys have said they don’t know how I got out of it.

YOU’VE ESCAPED THE ROLLER. WHAT DID YOU DO NEXT?

My arm was just hanging limp. It was my left arm and I’m right-handed. I thought the bones had been crushed like an eggshell. I tried to walk to the control room because I didn’t want to create a scene on the radio. But there was no way, so I had to radio up the boys to come down and help. They took over from there.

I was in a lot of pain. They called an ambulance and tried to make me comfortable until it arrived and went off to Invercargill hospital. I flicked the wife a text on the way down saying I’d broken my arm, can you come down and see me at the hospital. At that point I thought I’d lose my arm. When I got there one of the Korean bosses from work was there to meet me. That was really nice.

My wife came in. She didn’t know this Korean gentleman was my boss, she thought he was one of the doctors. He was asking her lots of questions. Shouldn’t you be going over and seeing Vernon, she asked. Oh no, he said, I’m Vernon’s boss. She thought it was hilarious.

They got me through X-ray and said oh, you’ve just got three broken bones – the humerus, the bicep, and two bones in the forearm. My arm was hanging limp, and even my elbow was separated. It was like an island. They put me through surgery, inserted pins and plates and bolted me all back together. They couldn’t put me in a cast so I spent the recuperation time in a sling.

HOW WAS YOUR REHABILITATION?

I was in hospital about ten days. They had to do the operation in batches because the swelling was so severe they couldn’t close me up properly.

At home I couldn’t do anything. When I met my case worker she said let’s write our list of goals. I said I’d like to be able to butter my toast, that’s the first thing. I had daily physio. Before my accident I was a competitive mountain bike rider. I was slowly giving that up and taking on fly fishing and kayak fishing. I’d been talking with the surgeon and he said the best thing I could do is learn how to tie flies. Get my fingers going. Makes sense. I wanted to get back to where I was as quick as I could, rather than just sulk. As soon as I was watertight I pushed ACC to let me go down to the pool for swim therapy. I just walked against the pressure of the water until I could dog paddle. After three months I swam my first length. It was about four months before I could even pinch a feather between my fingers to tie it on the hook, fly tying. All these little things helped me come back quicker rather than just sitting around watching TV all day.

When I was back on deck I went down to the river and caught my very first fish with the fly I tied during my recuperation. That was awesome!

HOW LONG WERE YOU OFF WORK?

About three months. I started going in just for the mornings to ease me back into it. The guys at work were very supportive, they treated me like I was a pregnant lady. The doctors were adamant I wasn’t to do anything, it was just like immersion back into the workforce. No lifting, nothing that could cause damage. I still couldn’t tie my shoes. It was more of a social thing.

WHAT IMPACT DID YOUR INJURY HAVE ON YOUR FAMILY?

It had a huge impact on my wife. We’d just bought our first motor home and had planned a big trip during the Christmas break. We both had time off work booked and had all the camping spots sorted. I was in a sling so she had to learn how to drive the motorhome. She did all the driving, all the cooking, everything. Coming home, with me being a chef I used to share the cooking, but she had to do everything. She’s a senior librarian with quite a busy role, she does a full day at work and had to run the house with my daughter. It took a toll on her, she got quite tired.

HOW HAS THE ACCIDENT CHANGED YOUR APPROACH TO WORK?

I’m like hazard watch on steroids really. Once you’ve gone through a near-death experience like that you see things in a different light. You can see things that you didn’t see before.

ROBIN WILKS

Environment, health & safety manager at Vernon Perry’s plant.

I started the new role three weeks before Vernon’s accident. I was previously the QA manager. I’d had 19 years in the plant as an operator and a process analyst so I have a really good understanding of day to day operations and process knowledge. I can talk the talk when there’s a process issue or incident.

WHEN DID YOU LEARN OF VERNON’S INJURY?

I was sitting at home watching TV. The night shift had started at 6.30pm and the accident happened around 7pm. I got a call from the operations manager who was about to go to the plant. I jumped in my car and drove the 40km there, passing the ambulance on my way in. I knew it was Vernon inside and that our production manager was heading to the hospital to support Vernon. I wanted to make sure things were being handled back at the plant as well as they could be. Being new to the role I was a bit apprehensive.

WHAT STATE WAS THE REST OF THE NIGHT SHIFT IN?

A wee bit shocked actually, feeling unsure. The plant had been shut down by the time I got there. We did a quick assessment, had a meeting with staff and made sure people were being supported. Our first thoughts were with Vernon and making sure his family had been contacted and getting support. We secured the scene and called WorkSafe, then updated the senior management group.

YOU WERE SURPRISED TO FIND THE SLIDING LOCKABLE GATE WAS OPEN?

It was definitely a surprise. The sliding gate was attached to the mat former and was there for maintenance access. It should have been bolted closed, but the bolt had been removed and the guard pushed aside. I was a press operator doing the same role as Vernon for several years and I recall it was bolted then. We were not able to identify when the practice of leaving the gate unbolted had become common, but it seems to have developed over a few years prior to this accident.

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO CLOSE THE GAP BETWEEN WORK-AS-IMAGINED AND WORK-AS-DONE?

We ran four plant-wide meetings so all four press crews and plant staff could attend. I talked about the incident and encouraged people to come forward with similar work practices. The fear I had was that this wasn’t an isolated event, that there could be similar work practices being performed in other parts of the plant that could lead to the same result.

I tried to set the scene for employees to come forward without fear of reprisal. Nobody came forward immediately after those meetings, but people did after a couple of weeks had passed. We identified two or three things that were similar but not as severe that also involved machine guarding. People had had time to think about what the outcomes could be and felt confident enough to come forward.

Supervisors and I were getting out around the plant more than we had been before, assessing roles and how people were performing tasks. That was the informal approach. We also did things more formally like training 25 of our 60 operators on a machinery safety course.

Over time that course and many others helped to change our mindset and approach to safety.

WHAT ADVICE FOR PEOPLE IN YOUR ROLE IN MANUFACTURING PLANTS?

Health and safety is about people. Get your senior management team on the same page and going in the same direction, with the same core values around health & safety, same consistent message coming from above. After the accident I and two other managers completed a four-day certified machine safety expert course run by PILZ. That got the three of us thinking the same. Before that the wider management group tended to debate things: do we really need to do this, why are we spending money on that? It was more why rather than how.

The incident cemented some core values that we all could agree on and take forward as a group. It is very unfortunate that it took Vernon’s accident to push this way of thinking to the front of our minds, and how complacency can cause a slow slide to something serious.

Small changes and a consistent message means we are much more proactive now at identifying similar work practices that might end up dangerous.

PETER BATEMAN

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