A story of safety and survival

People who saw him say he looked like a fireball with arms and legs. Seventeen-year-old Curtis Weber was underneath a metal hopper when it made contact with the overhead wire.

People who saw him say he looked like a fireball with arms and legs.

Seventeen-year-old Curtis Weber was underneath a metal hopper when it made contact with the overhead wire.

The force threw him away from one steel leg, only to knock him into another and then another.

He was electrocuted three times, each time sending 14,400 volts through his body.

About 15 years later, Weber was in Whitehorse this week speaking to schoolchildren and employers about the series of small missteps that nearly took his life.

The story he tells is detailed and it’s graphic. But at an event for employers on Wednesday he said he wants his safety message to hit home.

“A lot of people look at my injury and they think it’s a tragedy. For me the real tragedy is the fact that it was preventable on so many different levels.”

* * *

In July 1999, Weber was living in the Battleford, Sask. area. An outdoorsy kid, he was most passionate about hockey.

Junior A teams were already approaching him to play, but Weber decided to stay home for one last summer before beginning what he hoped would be a hockey career.

His summer job offered enough physical labour to keep any athlete fit. Weber was part of a crew building huge grain bins for farms.

He had experience doing that work in the past, but the day he nearly died was only his third day with a different company.

According to Weber, who is now a safety consultant and speaker, Saskatchewan stats found that workers younger than 25 are four times more likely to be injured on the job.

And if it’s your first week on the job, you are twice as likely to be hurt on the job, he said.

Weber doesn’t remember anything from the day.

It was a long weekend, July 29, and the crew was supposed to have it relatively easy.

About halfway through setting up the first bin at the first farm, the farmer told them it was not what he ordered. They had to take everything down.

“We were a crew that was working together that were supposed to be home early on that long weekend, and now we had wasted a good part of the day setting up that first bin,” he said.

That setback affected everyone’s mood and put them in a “huge rush” to get things done, he said.

The second job site was about an hour down the road.

In this case the crew had to put together the large grain bin and place it on top of a hopper on site.

The materials to build the bin had been delivered on one side of a low-hanging power line. The hopper had been dropped off on the other.

The crew knew the power line was a hazard, Weber said. Standing underneath, they all looked up.

“The boss was talking to us about it and one of his quotes was ‘this hazard that we’re talking about right now has the potential to kill somebody today.’”

About 15 minutes later it almost did.

* * *

“We decided we were going to use our picker truck to lift up that hopper bottom off the ground four or five feet, back it underneath this power line and set it into place,” said Weber.

He doesn’t remember everything from the day of his accident, but Weber knows what kind of kid he was then. “I would have been thinking, what a complete waste of time this is.”

His thoughts wouldn’t have been about safety, he said, just that it could be done in a much easier way.

Hoppers are built on skids and are designed to be pushed or pulled around.

At 17, he was working with much older people. Add to that the fact that he was new to the job, he didn’t speak up.

Another worker on the scene had a bad feeling about what was happening, but didn’t say anything, he said.

That’s a reality for a lot of people on the job, he said, no matter how old they are. But it’s important to create an environment where people feel comfortable speaking up.

“When we’re younger we want to appear confident. We want to look like we’re macho kids that don’t need to be told what to do, and we don’t want to rock the boat and look like a baby,” he said.

“And maybe when we’re a more senior worker, we’ve got more experience, maybe the reason we don’t say anything is that we don’t want to look like, hey, you’ve got 20 years experience and you’re asking that kind of a question?”

Weber offered to be the guy to steady the hopper bottom from the wind as it was being moved.

The crane operator didn’t lower the boom far enough and made contact with the wire.

Two other workers were also electrocuted and thrown from the danger zone, while Weber was turned into a fiery ping pong ball bouncing between the steel legs.

“It literally picks you up and throws you backwards off your feet.”

Weber said the four uninjured co-workers were sure he was dead.

His chest wasn’t rising and smoke was billowing from his body.

When they got there he did regain consciousness. Yelling and thrashing, he tried to get up.

Fearing a back injury, his crewmates tried to hold him down.

Each time he pulled away, the crew was left with pieces of flesh in their hands.

* * *

At the hospital Weber was put into a medically-induced coma for six weeks.

He had third and fourth degree burns over 60 per cent of his body.

The jolt had gone down the right side of his body and exited through the left. He lost his right arm just below the elbow and left leg below the knee.

His face was burned so deeply in one spot his jaw bone was exposed.

“Each of the first four nights my parents were called into a conference room where there was a priest present and they were told, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Weber, we’re extremely sorry to tell you, but your son’s body is shutting down, his kidney’s failing, his body is shutting down, and he’s probably not going to make it through the night.”

In the early days, hospital staff pumped so much fluid into his body his family could not recognize him.

Weber survived and had 30 surgeries in the first six months after his accident.

Over the next six years there would be 14 more reconstructive surgeries in Toronto.

Even after everything that has happened to him, Weber does not come across as an angry man.

He says he’s never been depressed about his life and is back to doing everything he did before, though often in a different way.

“A pretty huge chunk of my life was lost or at least put on hold because of that one incident where we messed up as a crew,” he said.

“But more importantly for me is where I messed up as an individual not speaking up, voicing my concern. I put a lot of emphasis and responsibility on myself. … We have the opportunity to prevent these things from happening a lot of the time.”

Weber encouraged the audience to make sure their employees get a proper orientation to prevent bad habits from developing.

Identifying hazards and doing a risk assessment is also important.

In his case the risk was identified. “We didn’t take the next step and say, ‘OK, this is a hazard, it could kill somebody, what are we going to do to make sure that doesn’t happen?’ We didn’t even have a spotter.”

Companies need to create an environment where people can speak their mind, he said.

Fifteen years after the accident, Weber is happily married with two young kids.

Staying safe at work is as much about you as it is your family, he said.

“Just keep that in mind the next time you’re asked to do something you don’t feel comfortable doing, or you’re in a situation where you don’t feel comfortable,” he said.

“Make sure you remember that you’re only being borrowed from your kids, from your wife, from your husband and so on.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com