On July 29, 1999, Curtis Weber had the world by the tail. At 17 years old, just out of high school, he’d signed to play junior hockey with the Drayton Valley Thunder. It was a sunny Friday, the August long weekend and a northern lake fishing trip was coming up.
But before the sun would go down, this young man’s life would take a horrific twist. His hockey career would be over before it began and his parents would be told he probably wouldn’t survive the night. He had sustained a massive electrical shock; 14,400 volts of electricity had coursed through his body in three separate surges.
Weber was working with a grain bin company on a farm in central Saskatchewan. The crew of a boss/owner and six workers was about to move a hopper bin under a power line with a picker truck. They talked about the risk involved. Somebody could get killed, they acknowledged.
As they approached the line, Weber steadied the bin from the high winds. When the crane operator backed directly into the power line Weber became the ground point for the live line.
“I was surrounded by steel and as each cycle of 14,400 volts passed through my body, the electricity tried to eject me from the ‘live’ zone, instead throwing me violently from one end of the steel structure to another as the second and third cycles of 14,400 volts of electricity passed through me,” he writes on his website at: curtisweber.ca.
Miraculously, he survived the incident which entailed third- and fourth-degree burns to over 60 per cent of his body. Over an initial six-month hospital stay he would have over 30 surgeries. This was followed by 12 more reconstructive/plastic surgeries in Toronto in the next five years for a total of more than 42 surgeries. Recovery time between the plastic surgeries could be months followed by more months of physiotherapy to strengthen his body for the next procedure. From the time of the incident to full recovery was just under six years. The new normal would be living life as a double amputee, with his right arm amputated just below the elbow and his left leg just below the knee.
Seventeen years later in early December, Curtis Weber stands before an audience of about 70 in Kelvington, Saskatchewan. At an event sponsored by the Kelvington Health Action team and East Central Co-op, local agriculture businesses plus the Town of Kelvington and Kelsey Trail Health Region, he brings the message he has shared in workplaces, schools and businesses across Canada and the U.S. — why his incident happened and how similar incidents can be prevented.
What happened and why it happened
On that day 17 years ago, the risk was recognized and discussed, he says. “Seven of us stood under the overhead line. The company owner identified the risk. He said, ‘This is going to be an issue. We need to get this hopper over here and if we’re not careful somebody could be injured or killed.’ Fifteen minutes later we made contact with that overhead line.”
What happened was a process, Weber says. It began in the morning when the crew learned that rather than having a short Friday, and an early start on the long weekend, due to unforeseen circumstances they would be putting in a long day, causing frustration among the workers.
Then there was the talk: Just identifying somebody could be killed from a certain hazard isn’t going to stop that from happening, he says.
“Nobody said this person will do this and that person will be the spotter and he’ll be communicating with the operator and so on… nobody said anything like that and I walked away from that conversation probably thinking wow that’s a big deal, somebody could be killed or seriously injured. I’m sure my new boss, my manager and foreman won’t let that happen to me.
“Talking about it, just identifying what could happen in a situation isn’t going to stop it from happening. We need to talk about what we are going to do about it.”
Communication is speaking up
He admits his own culpability. He knows he must have felt that this could go wrong, but he was only 17, the new kid on the job. He didn’t want to speak up. Besides, weren’t the other workers and his boss OK with the situation? Why should he say anything?
“That’s a deadly attitude to approach a task like that,” he says.
Similar situations can happen in any workplace including the farm, he says. People can become complacent, thinking “we’ve done this a thousand times, and nothing has gone wrong.” Time pressure can be a factor as can a reluctance to speak up or a fear of reprisal from a boss or a rushed and harried parent.
Everyone needs to feel safe speaking up
Weber says his dad was always a good dad but he could be brusque and expected his children to know what to do because he had taught them, so growing up, he was reluctant to ask questions on the job site.
In the agricultural industry, the statistics regarding the number of fatalities and serious accidents are pretty staggering, he says. “And don’t get me wrong… I know it’s hard work, dangerous work but we need to do better in terms of how we approach these hazards and risks on our farms.”