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Fined for Falling Off the Roof

The odds of surviving a 25-foot fall, I've heard, are one in 100. My own 32-foot tumble happened in August 1993, when we were sheathing the 4 /12 truss roof of a three-story apartment my company was building. I'd just cut the first sheet of plywood, laid it down on the roof framing, and was about to start nailing it off when the sheet started to slide. I have no memory of the accident itself because of the injuries I sustained, but I've been told that I somehow got both feet on the sheet when I tried to stamp one foot on it to stop it from sliding. I lost my balance and slid right off the roof with the plywood under me.

I could have landed in the middle of a pile of broken concrete and construction debris. But instead I landed on my side on the only bare patch of ground around. My hip hit first, fracturing my pelvis; then my back, breaking seven ribs on my right side and puncturing a lung; then my shoulder, fracturing my clavicle; and then my head, breaking several teeth and putting me in a coma with a traumatic brain injury. The good news was that I wasn't impaled on a metal stake marking the water meter about 12 inches from where I landed, and that my ‘magic carpet' of plywood didn't land on top of me.

My 13-year-old son was on site at the time, and though he was convinced I'd just been killed, he managed to call 911 on the cellphone. This was especially traumatic for him because he knew that my own dad died when I was thirteen, and he had a fear that his dad would, too. As I was evacuated by helicopter, my brother drove my son to the hospital. Using my cellphone, my son called everyone in the phone's directory and asked them to pray for me. It must have helped, because I survived the next three days in a coma on life support (photo, previous page), another week in the ICU, and then another five weeks in the hospital before heading home for six weeks of outpatient rehabilitative therapy.

Recovering from the accident was tough. I lost 50 pounds and 30 percent of my muscle mass (a body loses as much as 3 percent of muscle mass per day when on an IV feed). More important, I had suffered extensive frontal lobe damage and was told to expect irreversible neurological damage. But I credit my faith and the prayers of my friends and family — as well as the mental toughness I'd learned from a job-site injury seven years earlier, when I'd sliced my knee open with a saw — with putting me back on the job only eight months later.

On my very first day back at work, my company happened to be doing a siding job; there I was, two stories up on wobbly pump jacks and wooden scaffold planks. It didn't bother me a bit, and that's what concerned me. I was reminded of something that my Airborne drill sergeant said when asked if he'd ever been afraid to jump out of the plane: "Son, being scared to jump is what keeps me alive." Shortly afterward, I became one of the first Des Moines contractors to invest in a high-quality aluminum staging system.

When OSHA investigated my accident, they shut down the job for two weeks and fined me $69 for not having fall protection. So you might assume that harnesses and fall-arrest systems would be a prominent feature on my job sites. But the reality is that, while I try to work safely and have invested in high-quality staging, following every single OSHA safety guideline would put my company at a competitive disadvantage, because there isn't universal enforcement. I'm a strong advocate of working safely, and if it were up to me, everyone would be required to comply, but I have to temper the ideal with the realities of the marketplace. We work hard, we work safely, and we still pray a lot.

Mark Parleeis a general contractor in Des Moines, Iowa.


Beware Flying Nails

by John Isaksen

George was about 20 years old when he hired on to help us with a colonial we were building. He impressed us from the beginning with his carpentry skills and great attitude toward the trade, so we offered him a full-time job.

But before he could start, he had a small job of his own to finish. While working on his project, he was pulling an 8d common nail out of some framing lumber, using his cat's paw — the kind of thing carpenters do every day without thinking about it. But instead of easing out slowly, the nail catapulted from the wood at high speed, flipped around, and stuck right in his eye. Four operations and a contact lens later, George could see "okay," but with nowhere near the 20/20 vision he had before the accident.

In our state, business owners aren't required to cover themselves with workmen's comp, and, like most small contractors, George hadn't done so. His wife had health insurance through her work, which covered some of the cost, but because she was pregnant, she had planned to quit and stay at home. However, with the accident, she had to continue working to keep the insurance in force — another unfortunate side effect of the injury.

Since that time, we require everyone on our projects to wear safety glasses at all times. We supply our workers with the model of their choice, and whenever anyone complains he gets to hear me tell the George story again. The moral of the story is that everybody knows to be careful when the danger is obvious, but wearing safety glasses all the time will protect you from the unexpected stuff.

John Isaksenis a remodeler in Bellevue, Wash.


Switchblade

by Michael Kennedy

My router has a European-style on-off switch. You're probably familiar with the particular indicator markings: a dash for on and a circle for off. Or is it the other way around? It's an attempt at creating a universal symbol set, I suppose, but not as intuitive as the simple words "on" and "off."

Anyway, I knelt down to plug in the tool, and, sure enough, it was already switched to the "on" position. The start-up torque threw the tool off my workbench and straight toward me. Reflexively, I held my hand out to block the tool from striking me, and the bit took off the index finger of my right hand, clean as a whistle. And because a router doesn't cut so much as pulverize, there was nothing left to retrieve and stitch back on.

What do I do differently today? I realize that a spring-loaded trigger switch is safer than a toggle switch, so I have replaced the router with another model with a trigger feature. And I always make sure the tool is securely held before I plug it in.

Michael Kennedyis a custom stair builder in Hyannis, Mass.


Run-In With a Biscuit-Joiner

by Richard Hark

About a year ago, when a friend and fellow stair-builder left a message on my voice mail telling me he'd just cut off his index finger in a router accident, I thought to myself, "That could happen to any one of us." Ironically, it was only one month later that I cut one of my own fingers off at the first knuckle. My tool of choice, however, was the seemingly innocuous hand-held biscuit joiner.

I was making a series of large newel-post caps, which were about 13 inches square with a "hip-roof" configuration. Each side of the hip was made from an individual piece of mahogany, and I was assembling the segments — 72 in all — with biscuits and yellow glue. I knew, of course, that a repetitive job of this size really required a jig to hold the workpieces firmly, but I was impatient to get the job done. I'd spread a sheet of slippery plastic over the bench to keep it clean of glue and was simply holding the segments with my left hand while cutting the slots. Even worse, I was using the tool with the fence flipped up out of the way; I was controlling the slot location with a block of wood under the workpiece.

I'd fallen into a rhythm and gotten quite a few pieces slotted when suddenly the bit grabbed the workpiece and threw it to the right. That left my hand in the way, and the blade grabbed my ring finger and chopped it, pulling it right into the aluminum blade housing and blowing it apart. Never have I been more angry with myself than I was at that moment, looking at that last finger joint hanging by a scrap of skin. I knew I'd been stupid not to make a simple jig, which would have taken all of five minutes. It hurt in more ways than one.

The doctor said that he could reattach the joint, but it would be rigid and useless and get in my way. He advised removal and I reluctantly agreed. With only nine fingers left whole (photo, above), I've gone back to work with a renewed respect for the power of simple hand tools. And I don't mind spending a few extra minutes to make the jigs that keep my hands out of harm's way.

Richard Harkis a custom stair builder in Harwich, Mass.


Counting to 9 1/2

by Ed Williams

I was building a mahogany library for a client and was trying to keep on schedule. One of our carpenters couldn't come in that day, so I was attempting to make up for lost help. Doing repetitive work with a dangerous tool early on a Monday morning is not the time to be absent-minded, but I was. I reached around the back of the table-saw blade (as I'd foolishly done a thousand times before) to remove the drop piece from the left of the blade after it fell off the cut, but the waste piece caught the back of the blade, kicked back, and dragged my left hand over the spinning saw blade. Faster than my mind could work, my thumb — no match for a 10-inch carbide blade spinning at 3,450 rpm — was gone from the first knuckle up.

There are many advantages to working with other people, one being that there is always someone available to take you to the hospital. So, after my initial outcry, my hand was shoved into a bag of ice (another good reason to have a refrigerator in your shop) and I was driven to the closest hospital.

When you're in shock, you really don't feel any pain; 45 minutes later, though, you're thanking God for nurses and morphine. The hospital staff cleaned and covered my wound with bandages (I still didn't look), put an IV in my arm, took me up to X-ray, and then brought me back down again to wait seven hours for surgery. Afterward, they sent me home with my wife, my hand in a cast. As the morphine wore off, the pain became almost unbearable. No amount of pain pills can numb severed nerve endings in one's thumb.

A few weeks later, the cast came off and the stitches came out, and I got to see what I had left to work with. It was pretty depressing. While the cast was on I could swear I could feel the top of my thumb moving, like playing "Where is Thumbkin?" with the kids. But Thumbkin was gone. The medical phenomenon is known as "phantom pain": The feeling is real, but the body part just ain't there.

Ordered to attend physical therapy for six weeks, I scoffed. Thumb therapy? But, boy, am I glad I went. Encouraging and supportive, the therapists had seen it all and knew to tell me that it looked good when it didn't and to use it when I didn't want to. For weeks afterward, my wife had to tie my shoes, zip my pants, help me put on my shirt (I still have a hard time with buttons), cut my food, and tie my arm up between sofa pillows at night to keep my hand elevated while I slept. When I did get back to work, I was helpless there as well. I couldn't carry plywood or hold just about anything with my left hand. Thankfully, I own the company.

It's been a year now since my accident, and what's left of my thumb is still very sore to the touch. I bump it just a little and I climb the walls. A cabinetmaker I know lost the top of his ring finger 20 years ago and his finger is still sore, a discouraging thought. I did start playing the guitar again after about six months, which is great therapy, but not a day goes by that I'm not aware of my left hand's "shortcomings," especially when even a simple thing like holding a screw or a nail between my left thumb and forefinger is just a dream.

I can't stress enough how important it is to be careful in our business at all times, no matter how much experience you have. Next time you think you can get your hand a little closer to the blade just for that one cut, I hope you'll remember this story like a slap on the back of the head.

Believe me, you don't want to be writing your own safety story.

Ed Williamsis a finish carpenter and cabinetmaker in Dallas.