At the 2017 IAIABC Annual Convention, Curtis Weber with High Voltage Consulting shared his story as a severely injured worker who went on to become a safety trainer and consultant.
Curtis was just a normal kid from a small town in Saskatchewan, Canada. He was active and sports loving. At age 17, he had passed a tryout and been offered a spot on a Canadian junior hockey team, which is their version of NHL developmental leagues. The summer after he graduated high school, he stayed in his home town to work setting up grain bins (which is a large metal structure) on farms before heading to his future of a potential hockey career. He had done this for years as his family business was in this trade. He took a job that summer with a new company setting up grain bins.
Three days into his new job he was working to set up a grain bin. They identified a potential hazard on their job site as there was an overhead power line nearby. They were working to carefully position the bin without hitting the power lines and were using a lift. He wondered why they were using a crane to move the bin instead of just dragging it which is the normal protocol but being a young kid on a new job he did not speak up. The crane made contact with the overhead power line electrocuting Curtis and two other workers.
He sustained severe electrical burns from the incident with 3rd degree burns over 60% of his body. Because of the severity of his injuries he was put into a medically induced coma. For the first few days after the injury his family was told his chances of survival were slim. However, he responded to treatment and his life was saved. He remained in the medically induced coma for 6 weeks while they treated him. He was in the hospital for over seven months and had over 30 operations during that time. As a result of the injuries he lost his right arm and left leg. For several years after that he underwent a number reconstructive surgeries to repair the severe burn damage. His entire life for over the next five years with nothing but rehabilitation and surgeries.
He said there was never a time he felt depressed or angry. Instead his focus was on his new reality and how to move forward. His initial thoughts when he found out he lost his arm was how he was going to continue fishing and playing hockey with a prosthetic and how he would need to adapt to his new limitations.
Curtis stressed the importance of so many individuals in his recovery. This started with his family but also included his medical care givers, nurse case managers, lawyers and the workers’ compensation system. He emphasized the importance of remembering that each case is a person, not a claim number. Every person has individual needs and things that are important to them. For him, that meant things like adapting his snow mobile and fishing poles to be operated using his left hand instead of his right hand. Anything that helped him return to his prior activities as much as possible were his priority.
One challenge he had to overcome was falling into the disability mindset and not taking any responsibility. He would go to therapy and spend time on activities like hunting and fishing with friends. But he would also sleep till noon and really was becoming complacent with this lack of responsibility. Fortunately his family and others pushed him to make more out of his life. The Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board offered him vocational training to help him find a new occupation that interested him and he pursued this.
One of the most important aspects from the WCB was the support they provided to his family. They did a great job helping them understand all the resources available to them and that they were supported. They were in constant communication with his family. He never felt there was anything they could have done better from a rehabilitation and resources perspective. He said it was clear they went above and beyond including paying for his parents to accompany him on trips to Toronto and Chicago for his reconstructive surgeries even when he would end up spending a month in the hospital following the surgeries.
Today he is still active in all the activities he did before the injury. He has a wife and family. He also has a career working with the Saskatchewan WCB as a safety trainer and consultant.
His final message was twofold. First, injury prevention starts with workers feeling empowered to speak up when they see potential hazards. This comes with having a culture of safety at the employer. His accident was preventable if he would have spoken up when he realized their activity was potentially unsafe and there was a better way to get the job done safely.
Second, your life is what you make of it. Injured workers need to focus on their recovery and return to function. Never accept a disability mindset and never let disability be an excuse for not living life to the fullest.