by Bill Pierce
After moving to Arizona in 1985, I took a temporary job as yard man at a cotton gin until I found work in the engineering industry. This job involved driving a tractor with a tilt-bed trailer, hauling bales of cotton and spotting them in the proper locations in the distribution yard. This job involved working 12 hours a day; 7 days a week.
One night, after dropping a load at the distribution yard, I pulled up next to the conveyor to get my next load of cotton into the trailer. I noticed the conveyor was empty. I went inside the gin to see why there was no production being done, and the inside of the gin was filled with smoke. I was informed the cotton gin was on fire, and I needed to help put the fire out. When I asked if the fire department had been called, I was informed that, because we were in a county island, fire service was only available from a for-profit fire department, and that the company that owned the cotton gin had opted not to buy fire service, as the fire-fighting responsibilities were left to the employees.
At that point, I was told to open a large steel trap door on the floor of the gin that covered the seed pit. At that time, I entered the seed pit, which was approximately 16 feet deep, with a water hose, to try to extinguish burning seeds entering the pit. The seeds were coming into the pit by way of an auger under the floor from the combing area at the opposite end of the building. Because the seeds under the floor were burning, the augur was left running to bring the seeds into the pit.
All firefighting was done by the employees, using garden hoses. No protective gear was available, the smoke was very heavy and, after a short time, I was having trouble breathing inside the seed pit. I exited the pit to try to get some fresh air. When I went to close the trap door on the pit I was told to leave it open because I would have to go back down. I moved over to the side, near a railing, and, within a couple of minutes, the foreman, who was on the gin stand above my head, asked me to step back so he could pass me down the ladder. When I stepped back, I fell backward into the seed pit, somehow going down headfirst, where my head struck the floor of the seed pit.
The impact fractured my skull, from my crown, down the back of my head, to the base of my skull. At that point, the foreman called my wife and told her I had been killed in a fall. He then called for paramedics. By the time the paramedics arrived, my cousin, who also worked at the gin, had gone down into the pit and carried me up the stairs to the floor of the gin. He was informed by the paramedics when they arrived, that he should have never moved me because of possible neck or back injuries that could lead to paralysis. My cousin informed the paramedics that the only option he saw since the auger was running, bringing more burning seeds into the pit, was to get me out or watch me burn.
As it turned out, I was lucky, as just before my head hit the concrete, I brushed the iron railing on the stairs into the pit with my right ear. I brushed it so tight it actually peeled the skin off my ear. After brushing the ear, my shoulder came into contact with the stair railing, which shattered my right shoulder and my right arm from the shoulder to the wrist. Also shattered was my clavicle. I was informed by the paramedics that hitting the stair railing broke my fall enough to where it prevented me from being killed.
I was taken to a free-standing emergency room, where they bandaged my head wound, gave me a sling and loaded me with painkillers and sent me home. The next day I was in so much pain and so delirious, my wife and two of my cousins carried me to our van and my wife drove me to a real hospital. The hospital contacted the free-standing emergency room and requested any x-rays that were done. The hospital was informed that no x-rays had been taken. At that point, the hospital admitted me and took x-rays. After reviewing the x-rays, an orthopedic surgeon was called in. It was determined, by the surgeon, that the fractures in the shoulder and arm were too severe for surgery or plating, so I was put into a 45 pound, weighted cast, in hopes that the weight would pull the shattered bones back together. Also, they sewed up the back of my head, with 192 stitches. Then I was transferred up to a room and placed on a morphine drip for pain. I spent over a month in that hospital, after which I was able to go home, where I spent the next 8 ½ months with the cast-strapped tight to my body and having to sleep in a hospital bed in the middle of the living room.
After the cast was finally removed, I went to physical therapy three times a week for the next 2 years, in order to regain the use of my right arm at the Sports Medicine Institute, where I had my therapy. The only good part about it was that I met several of the players from the Phoenix Suns basketball team, who were also undergoing therapy. I was told that regaining full use of my right arm would probably never happen. I proved them wrong.
This was my wake-up call regarding workplace safety. After this incident, I received my OSHA workplace safety training and did find a job as an engineer.
Paid for by Pierce for Mine Inspector, Authorized by William "Bill" Pierce