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Safety talk aims to inspire Tolko workers

Tolko Soda Creek Division safety-committee co-chairs Kulvinder Khakh (left) and Ken Hunt (centre) and production supervisor Brad Follack (right) and Worksafe BC Young Worker Program speaker Mark Johnson (second from left). - Monica Lamb-Yorski photo
Tolko Soda Creek Division safety-committee co-chairs Kulvinder Khakh (left) and Ken Hunt (centre) and production supervisor Brad Follack (right) and Worksafe BC Young Worker Program speaker Mark Johnson (second from left).
— image credit: Monica Lamb-Yorski photo

Mark Johnson believed he was invincible until a workplace injury changed his life.

“The only time I ever thought I’d be up in front of people talking was to be a stand-up comedian,” the 28-year-old Maple Ridge resident told a group of employees at Tolko’s Soda Creek sawmill Friday before he shared his injury story, relating how at the age of 21, he lost the use of his left arm completely.

Tolko’s safety committee chairpersons Ken Hunt and Kulvinder Khakh invited Johnson to the sawmill to speak to crews.

“Safety in the workplace is number one,” Hunt said.

Johnson had been working at the mill for nine months, starting out on the green chain, moving to forklift driving, and eventually made it to cleanup crew.

There was only one person on each cleanup crew — it was a smaller, family-owned operation.

Cleanup was Johnson’s dream job. He could put his head down and work hard, he said.

In fact, he was told by his managers repeatedly he could be trusted and no one needed to check up on him.

That dedication almost cost him his life. On Sept. 18, 2006, his first night back on a two-week stretch of nights, Johnson was cleaning underneath a conveyor belt that ran to the chipper.

He had locks for locking down machines, but decided not to slow down operation and left the machinery on.

“I had a motto, what’s best for the mill, never what’s best for Mark,” he recalled.

Reaching in with his rubber gloved hand, he started scooping some chips that were stuck.

Before he knew it, his whole left arm got pulled right into the conveyer belt, wrapping around the roller, breaking his forearm in half.

And the machine didn’t stop.

“I don’t know if there are a lot of people who can pinpoint when they’ve done the stupidest thing in their life, but I can,” Johnson said.

After screaming solidly for 15 minutes as loud as he could, he had no voice left.

The damage had gone up his arm, through his high visibility vest and shirt, and ripped the skin off his back.

He was sure he was dead when suddenly the machine shut down, and Johnson began screaming again.

“I could hear other people working and the other machines going. The only way someone was going to find me was for the belt to stop and the wood to back up.”

When that happened and another employee arrived to see what was going on, he spied Jackson’s legs, hit three horns for an emergency multiple times.

Fellow workers got him out of the machine, fire and ambulance crews arrived, and he was taken to Royal Jubilee Hospital in New Westminster.

Later he would learn he lost two pints of blood.

Johnson had several surgeries, but in the end the use of his arm was not restored.

He spent a lot of time “thinking and feeling sorry for myself.”

His attitude changed one day because his baseball coach called him up and encouraged him to come and play.

“I had to call my coach over to tie up my cleats. He said he hadn’t had to tie anyone’s laces in years.”

After practice that first night back, Johnson discovered he could bat the ball with his one arm.

“To my coach’s surprise and mine I was hitting almost everyone he pitched to me and I wasn’t hitting them soft, I was hitting them hard.”

I led my team with the highest number of home runs. That cured 95 per cent of my depression.”

Then when Worksafe BC gave him the choice to return to work or go to school, he chose to return to work.

Within a month, however, he left because he realized his wrist, elbow and shoulder wouldn’t last the tasks he was being given and if he damaged his one good arm he’d be able to help himself even less.

Eventually he learned from WorkSafeBC he was eligible for a pension until he was 65 years old.

Today he works part-time for the Howe Sound Rehabilitation Society, working with adults with disabilities and contracts with WorkSafeBC’s Young Worker Program.

He spoke to many Tolko employees in Williams  Lake.

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