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Worker who lost arm in accident tells teens to know their rights, demand safety training

Former sawmill worker Matt Pomerinke speaks Tuesday to an East Valley High School class about the work accident which took his left arm. Pomerinke travels and speaks to high school students about safety and training in the workplace. (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Former sawmill worker Matt Pomerinke speaks Tuesday to an East Valley High School class about the work accident which took his left arm. Pomerinke travels and speaks to high school students about safety and training in the workplace. (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Matt Pomerinke doesn’t spare his teenage audience when he describes the industrial accident that cost him an arm.

A board jammed in a piece of machinery at the small mill where he worked. Pomerinke tried to jerk it loose. When the board broke, he lost his balance.

He watched his arm being pulled into the drive motor on the conveyor belt. He heard his bones snapping. He smelled blood and wondered if he was screaming out loud or just in his head.

A co-worker used his belt as a tourniquet, saving Pomerinke’s life. But at 21, his world changed. His left arm was crushed. It had to be amputated just below the elbow.

“It was my first real job,” Pomerinke told students at East Valley High School on Tuesday. “I didn’t know anything, and it led to me wearing a prosthetic.”

Pomerinke, a resident of Longview, Washington, tells his story to about 7,000 high school students each year, emphasizing how a lack of proper safety training led to a preventable accident. The state Department of Labor and Industries sponsors his talks, using them to get teens thinking about workplace safety.

“Kids are so happy to be making money,” said Tim Church, a Labor and Industries spokesman. “They want to fit in. They don’t challenge anything.”

That inexperience leads to high rates of on-the-job injuries. Nationally, workers age 15 to 24 are twice as likely to be injured as older workers.

In Washington, 675 teens were hurt at work last year. The number of work-related accidents for teens is on the upswing, probably as a result of more job opportunities for young people since the end of the recession, Church said.

Most teens were injured in food service, lodging and retail jobs in Washington last year. Cuts were the most common workplace injury, followed by sprains and burns.

During his talk, Pomerinke tells students to know their rights as employees and demand proper safety training. He encourages them to spend at least an hour on Labor and Industries’ web page for teen workers: www.lni.wa.gov/WorkplaceRights/TeenWorkers/.

Church also encourages parents to ask their kids what tasks they’re doing at work. Washington state prevents minors from doing a number of dangerous jobs, including operating deli meat slicers, roofing and regular driving, including delivery jobs.

Pomerinke went to work at the mill right out of high school. It was a small operation that made cedar fence posts. He said he got a 10-minute tour of the mill and five minutes of instruction before he was pulling boards off of moving equipment. He was hesitant to ask questions.

“I didn’t want to make the boss mad,” he said. “I thought I was too young, too fast, too strong and too smart” to get hurt.

He and other young workers changed saw blades without de-energizing equipment or using the “tag-out” methods that prevented the machinery from being turned on while someone was working on it.

During the three years Pomerinke worked at the mill, co-workers broke wrists and fingers and injured their backs and shoulders. But it took the loss of his arm in 1999 to change the mill’s lax safety culture, Pomerinke said.

With his prosthetic arm, Pomerinke eventually regained the ability to do many of the things he loved, such as working on cars and playing video games. But during a bitter, angry period after the accident, he alienated many of his friends.

“It affects your family and it affects your friends,” he said of the accident. “For about two years, I was a pretty miserable person.”

Pomerinke, 39, now works at a paper mill. He’s part of the job interview team, and he always asks prospective hires about their record for working safely.

“There is no job that is worth your life,” he told the East Valley High School students. “It’s just a paycheck.”

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