Thoughts After a Severe Accident

After a shop worker is very badly injured by a machine, the owner seeks feedback from colleagues. April 7, 2008

Well, we finally had someone do something as stupid as humanly possible. New employee on second shift decided to stick his whole arm around the guard and over the blade of a 24" up saw (why, I have no idea). Hit the pedal release, and wham! No more hand from mid forearm down. All I can say is WTF. Excuse my language.

Has anyone else had a major injury like this? We have had a few fingertips lost, etc. - more or less minor in comparison to this. What happens next? Do we need to be expecting a visit from OSHA in the near future?

Up cuts are not machines that normally worry me. They are about as safe as can be until someone does something like this. I usually worry about open shapers, routers, and table saws. We run just under 50 employees. How do we idiot proof machines that are already idiot proof? Safety meetings... What do you discuss without just repeating yourself over and over, or is that the point? Almost all injuries are new employees. How do you drive it in their head to pay attention and not lose respect for this machine?

This kid is 20 years old and may lose his left hand. I feel like crap right now, but I am not sure what I could have done. I know this sort of thing is going to happen - it is part of the business - but what further steps can I take to make these people aware of what the outcome is when you do this? This is a very bad accident, and I don't want to have another one. I want everyone to learn form this poor kid's mistake.

Forum Responses
(Architectural Woodworking Forum)
From contributor K:
Man, really sorry to hear this. Is there a way to put side shields on this machine? As you said, no idea why he would reach back like that... but if there was a way to block that space...?

From contributor D:
I have witnessed a few of these things, but nothing as bad as you describe. Let's hope that the poor guy will be reunited, so to speak, and get some function in his hand.

You can expect visits from Osha and your State Osha also. Be straight and accurate with them as well as your insurance people. Ensure that the factory guards were all in place, and things proper, safety-wise. If not, don't try to hide it, but you will have to take a hit on that (fines). If you have evidence of training methods (manual, class, so many hours working with experienced shop hand, etc) have that info ready.

Most manufacturing states still have employer friendly Workers Comp limits as the result of years of lobbying efforts by large manufacturing concerns. Unfortunately, they may not cover the full costs associated with an amputation/reconnection and the extensive therapy required to get this man back to some kind of work.

The accidents I have witnessed as well as this one (by the short description) should never have happened, but they did because there really was a gap in the training and/or enforcement of the training. You have to realize that if this young man knew what the risks/consequences were, he would never have done whatever he was doing. Yes, you do have to repeat yourself endlessly at safety meetings. Dress up in a clown suit, use pizza, do whatever is necessary to package the message so it will take hold.

Thankfully, in a larger operation like yours, you should be able to find future employment that will benefit both of you, and your insurance carrier should help with some retraining funds, etc. Beat yourself up only so much, then move to make the best of the situation. Legally, socially and morally, you have an obligation to this employee; face it squarely and you, he and your company can come out fine.

From contributor N:
I think this recent accident will affect everyone for a while, but eventually things will loosen up and people will begin to take machines for granted again. You will see OSHA, and I am sorry for your loss.

One thing we started was a safety committee. We have about 10 people, so we're all involved. We meet once a month and each person has a turn for a safety topic for that month. Verbal, print out, whatever. Just to keep it in everyone's brain.

The other thing we have is a stack of forms in the shop where anyone who sees a potential hazard, can fill it out and send it to the office. We also have a chalkboard where we keep track of how many days since a lost time accident that is visible from the whole shop. Visual things that might make someone think twice instead of just doing.

Two things come to mind... The person is that stupid or nonobservant (problem in the hiring department). And people get so comfortable with their machine they lose respect for it. Visual posters at machines or something like that might make people think twice.

From contributor M:
This is terrible to hear. Sometimes no matter how much you try to protect your employees, stuff like this still happens. Before I started my own shop, I worked afternoons at a place and half the guys would go at lunch and pound back 4-5 beers, then come back to work. I could never understand the company letting guys go to the hotel next door. I am in no way saying this is what happened, but it does go on in the workplace. You said he was a new employee. I know you don't want to hear it, but sometimes a couple extra weeks of training is cheaper than this.

From contributor S:
Sorry to hear about this. We buy Northtech upcut saws and control the length with razor gauge. We have the foot switch removed and install a 2-hand anti-tie-down palm button. These buttons are not the old pneumatic logic systems, but electronic sensors that the operator puts a finger from each hand in (within 1 second of each other) and this cycles the saw. The saw will not cycle with anything like plastic or a wood dowel. Even with the old pneumatics, I have seen one button taped down so the operator could keep a free hand at the work; totally unacceptable. This is somewhat slower than the footswitch, but our only option.

From contributor B:
Everyone has posted really worthwhile advice, good for all of us to hear.

I finally bought a forklift for our small business earlier this year. As part of the process I had a formal forklift training session. The trainer did his classroom and on the truck training process and then gave me some additional advice. He strongly suggested, even though we are only a 3-4 man operation, that I institute a safety trainings schedule for the shop. He also said that it was as important to document this system as it was to conduct it on a regular basis. This way, if OSHA ever comes in, I can show them a track record of reviewing safety issues, and of making an attempt to comply with OSHA safety regulations. He said this is very important, and something OSHA takes into consideration after an accident.

I suspect OSHA will, as others have said, show up after such a major incident at an operation the size of yours. Be ready with any documentation/proof of safety training that you have. If you haven't had a safety training program, I'd say to put one in place immediately to show the inspector that you have indeed learned from the incident and want to do everything you can to prevent this from happening again. Make sure he understands that you are one of those that truly wants to do all he can to prevent accidents, versus one of those that wants to get away with as much as he can.

From contributor T:
I am sorry to hear about this situation. I would also suggest that you consult with an attorney right away. They should have some suggestions for you as well.

From the original questioner:
Thank you all for your helpful responses and suggestions. We will definitely be restructuring some things. It is unfortunate that something like this has to happen to bring to light the fact that many of the standard precautions that we take for granted due to experience and practical common sense is not seen that way by some individuals. Please learn from my shortcomings as an employer. Take every step possible to ensure that even the most obvious do's and don'ts are explained and understood, and when you catch someone not following your safety measures, they need to go before they or someone else is left to suffer the consequences.

From contributor N:
I was standing in line at the bank today and the guy in front of me was wearing a T-shirt. The back of the shirt read "500 DAYS ACCIDENT FREE". It just goes to show the lengths shops are going these days to promote safety. And for good reason.

My boss explained to me the other day the three main things that keep a company going. Good suppliers, good employees, and good customers. The last two are your responsibility to take care of, but if you lose either one of the three, something suffers. Safety is the best way to protect your employee force that is making you money and their paychecks every week. It's worth the investment.

From contributor X:
No matter how hard and often you stress safety, it is not enough. Have employees sign off on safety lectures, etc. Record keeping is a must. Only senior craftsman should make adjustments to machinery. All others wait for them to do so, thus ending senseless mishaps. Educate your employees.

From contributor J:
I don't have any employees, but I have worked in a few large shops as a pattern maker - lots of powerful conventional equipment such as disc sanders, table and band saws, and heavy things moved with cranes.

I never saw the sort of pattern you describe, with new employees getting injured frequently. There were a couple of older guys, not the brightest crayons in the box, who periodically gambled with the machines and lost, but newbies were always under the wing of a journeyman. In the six years I was with that last big shop, I never saw an apprentice get hurt. Maybe this has a lot to do with the non-repetitive nature of pattern making, and the resulting closely supervised apprenticeships, but my impression is that you might be putting kids into service with too little training and supervision.

I think that training (safety or otherwise) of very green employees often falls short because they simply don't have enough mental reference points to understand much of what they're being told. You can say something like, "Don't try to crosscut long pieces of wood against the rip fence because they can twist and bind and come flying out at you," and all they hear is "blah, blah, blah, danger." No lecture or video can save the need for direct supervision. Obviously I'm projecting my experience, possibly inappropriately, on your shop, but this is what comes to mind.

From contributor P:
I can't see where you did anything wrong. The first shop I worked at had a cut off saw that came up out of a table, which was triggered by a button, no guard, nothing.

Contributor J brings up a very salient point about mental reference points. When someone comes into a shop, they have a lot of confusion. The way to handle confusion is to have reference points. E.g. if you are lost in the forest (confused), you need to have a reference point, a compass, to mitigate the confusion. In a shop, it is things like always control the piece between the fence and the blade, the table saw kicks back when the wood binds against the blade, the force of the saw is always towards you, the splitter keeps the wood from binding, never talk to anyone while using a saw, only do what you are doing while you are doing it - no multitasking, etc. In a safety meeting, I suggest using reference points repeatedly. But make sure they are valid, relevant, and true reference points.

From contributor R:
On our farm we had a person get injured where he lost a hand and a knee. After he recovered from the surgery, the local factories asked him in to speak about safety. The unique thing was everyone was very aware of the dangers of making dumb mistakes. This may be a way for all of us to help our shops. Have someone come in to tell how they made a mistake and the results of the accident. This may be a good idea for all of us.

From contributor W:
As an orthopedic surgeon and the owner of a small custom flooring mill, I have seen quite a few shop mishaps. Most of them were fingertip amputations as well as a few partial hand amputations, but none as severe as this. In almost every case (including my own brush with a shaper), the accident was caused by a split second focus lapse. In my case I was running a bullnose on a stair part late at night when the wind blew open my shop door. Needless to say, I took my eyes off of my work and rounded off the tip of my index finger.

I certainly do not want to accuse anyone, but could this have been deliberate? I know that sounds terrible, but I cannot imagine anything requiring the employee to reach around the back of the saw. Many years ago, a well-established surgeon managed to amputate several of his fingers using a miter saw. He was unable to continue practicing surgery and was very lucky to have had what is known as "own occupation" disability policy that paid him 100% of his income for life. To this day I have not been able to figure out in the normal workings of a miter saw how his hand got into position to create the angle of his injury. Again, I hope that this is not the case, but it sure makes me wonder. Everyone has given you lots of good advice to reduce shop injuries, but believe you me, no matter what you do, accidents can and will happen. As crude as it may be, there is an old saying frequently used by trauma surgeons, you can't cure stupid.

From contributor P:
"As crude as it may be, there is an old saying frequently used by trauma surgeons, you can't cure stupid."

Yes you can; it is called education.

From contributor G:
Ignorance is what education cures.
Stupid is forever.

From the original questioner:
You can educate, but stupid is just plain stupid. You can educate ignorance, but from here on out, I am firing stupid. They are a liability to themselves and everyone else.

The injured guy has, after many surgeries, had his hand reattached, has some movement already, and physicians feel confident that it will keep. He was lucky, very clean cut and EMS was on the scene in under 7 minutes.

We have not been visited by OSHA yet, but would not be surprised if they walked in today. Workman's comp has found no negligence on our part. They are calling it, for lack of a better term, stupid. The injured person has retained a personal injury lawyer. They want to go after the manufacturer of the machine (then, I'm sure, me). Not too happy about this). The machine is a Grizzly 24" up-cut. Very well made, very safe design, even more so than higher name brands like Whirlwind that have no safety guards.

We are implementing an error-free safe workplace program. Safety meeting with cook out every Friday for lunch where we are raffling off $1,000 in cash split four ways for every month that we are accident and error free. No injuries, no major job screw-ups, etc. Hope it works on both plant safety and those huge job re-dos.

From contributor N:
You're on the right track man, good job!

From contributor V:
As a teacher of the old school industrial arts woodworking classes, I can definitely tell you there is stupid! I turned around last year, after hearing the table saw turn on, to see one of my students using the right stuff for ripping a board. But next to him to the side of the outside table was Josh. He began sticking a 1 x 2 x 26" or so into the blade from under the guard and in front of the other student. I ushered Josh to the office and told them it was Josh to be booted out or I was booting myself out! I had written this kid up no less than 8 times on various discipline and safety violations.

To you guys who employ "newbies" to further increase our workforce, thanks. But interview them carefully, and treat them as being very green. In fact, dress them in fluorescent green so that they are very visible, then watch their every move!