In 1999, Michael Lovett was fresh out of high school.
Eager to start working and gain his independence, he took a job at a Mission sawmill. Like most, he started on the green-chain. From there he moved doing maintenance on the graveyard shift. One of his jobs was to clean the conveyor on a de-barker.
“It was the one task I disliked, mostly because there was not a safe route in or out of it,” he told about 100 people gathered for the annual Day of Mourning ceremonies Sunday, commemorating workers who have been injured or killed on the job. “To get in, I would have to climb through a handrail situated along the log deck. To get off, I had to jump off roughly seven feet. I guess it made sense the kid was in there. Being in my 30s now, it’s hard to imagine an adult doing that more than couple times.”
He worked at the job for a couple of months and in all that time he never cleaned the conveyor with the machine ‘locked out,’ a process whereby machines are shut down and locked for safety reasons.
“In fact, with the conveyor running, it was very efficient,” he said. “It cut the time in half. Unfortunately, being efficient doesn’t always mean safe.”
It was the jump off of the conveyor that proved disastrous for Lovett on a rainy night, November 9, 1999. While turning his body around, his foot got caught and he slipped.
“My first instinct was to hang on and stop myself from falling,” he said. “I was too close to the tail-end roller and it caught my foot, pulling and crushing me towards it. I was terrified.”
He couldn’t pull himself away. His boot went into the conveyer’s roll feeder, and it started dragging his body into the moving machinery. Michael’s left leg was trapped between the large, heavy roller and the drive chain.
“I was very scared,” he said. “Thinking that I’d have to watch myself die and that I’d still be alive when the roller finally went over my head.”
Suddenly, a link broke off the engine’s drive chain, and the machine stopped before completely sucking Michael in.
“That link breaking is the only reason I’m here today,” he said.
It was 3:30 am and pouring rain outside. Michael’s calls for help went unheard and it took about a half-hour for help to arrive when a millwright, who noticed he didn’t show up during a break, came looking for him. The rescue team sorted through machine parts and log bark to find bits of his leg.
Michael was in the hospital for a month. He sustained significant damage to his knee and his leg had to be amputated. He had nine surgeries, 12 blood transfusions, and a metal rod inserted in his thigh. He’s undergone extensive, painful physiotherapy, with razor-sharp pain as he learned to walk on the artificial leg.
Now, every morning, Michael puts on a liner over his stump, then his prosthesis. He can’t walk very long without needing a rest, and still experiences pain. “This is something I have to live with,” he says. “I was a wrestler and played soccer. I used to be very active, and a lot of that’s been taken from me.”
What Michael has gained, is the opportunity to tell others what he went through. Speaking at schools and other places about young worker safety, he has made nearly 700 presentations to 40,000 people in all parts of the province.
Michael’s message is simple: Young workers, and all workers, have the right to instruction, training, and supervision while on the job. If you’re unsure about something, ask questions. It could save your life.
“Safety is everyone’s responsibility. So if you see something unsafe and you don’t want to speak up or make waves, do so. You have rights, and that’s what will bring you home safely at the end of the day.
“…I can’t imagine how families feel, losing a loved one by doing something so fundamental as going to work. It’s easy to get caught up in statistics, but we must remember these are real people with real lives and somebody is depending on them to come home.”
In 2018, there were 131 work-related deaths in B.C., 66 resulting from occupational disease (primarily related to historical asbestos exposure), and 65 resulting from traumatic injuries. In the Fraser-Fort George region in 2018, there were four work-related deaths.