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'I thought I was going to die': How U.S. workers remain at risk on the job

Millions of Americans have been injured in workplace accidents — and there aren’t enough inspectors to stop them

JUAB COUNTY, Utah – As his legs were being sucked into a winding screw conveyor at his father-in-law’s animal rendering plant, John Vrana worried he wouldn’t live long enough to see his wife again, who was at home, six months pregnant with twins.

Vrana had been trying to unclog the machine, which grinds animal parts and separates bone from fat, by straddling each side of the massive screw.

And then, his foot slipped.

“I ['saw] my leg being broken a ton and go around the screw conveyor,” he said. “I [saw] it being broken and ripped, and my skin ripped and smashed and my ankle being ripped and all that stuff going around the screw.”

Vrana, a 32-year-old step-father of two girls, took the temporary job at John Kuhni Sons Inc., his father-in-law’s facility in Juab County, Utah, to keep his mind busy while he waited for more work at his usual gig in the oil fields. 

He said he was working alone with little training when his foot slipped into the quickly-twisting machine in September 2015.

Vrana grabbed onto an indoor window sill near the machine to help pull himself to safety as the grinder quickly demolished his leg.

“I thought I was going to die – instantly,” he said. “I was going to die, and my brain never registered the pain. [I was] just screaming. But then, almost instantly, another click of my brain is, ‘How am I going to live? I don’t want to die.’”

Struggling to pull himself out of the grinding screw, Vrana thought of his wife, Ashley, and his twins, a baby girl and a boy who were due in a few months. He wanted to tell Ashley he loved her.

“I tried to stand up,” he said. “I know now that was a mistake, because where I tried to stand up was on the screw conveyor, so then my left foot [got] sucked in.”

Vrana launched his upper body off the side, but his legs were already gone. With no one to hear his calls for help in the noisy factory, he desperately grasped for his cell phone in his cargo pants pocket, which had been mangled in the screw.

Calmly, he whipped the belt from his waistband and secured it around his leg as a tourniquet, while he dragged his bloody body across the floor of the animal processing plant, gathering animal hair, dirt and debris in his wounds.

Knowing he might not see his wife again or ever have the chance to see his unborn children, John Vrana willed himself to call for help.

Pushing himself on adrenaline, he moved approximately 15 feet when he encountered an industrial hose suspended a few inches above the ground – too high to lift himself over it and too low to slide underneath.

He willed himself over the hose and shouted at the top of his lungs for help.

“[When I had] about three feet left to crawl, I started using my legs cause [I was] losing blood and tired,” he recalled. “[That’s when] I really started like, ‘Holy crap, I’ve got no legs!’”

His brother-in-law rushed to his side and helped place a second makeshift belt tourniquet while calling 911. As they called for a life-saving helicopter, someone handed a phone to Vrana so he could call his wife.

“If I would have died, I got to tell her I loved her, and nothing else [was] on my mind.  I’d have been okay with that after that,” he said. “I crawled. I tried my best. Stuff happens in life, obviously, and that would have just been the end of me.”

Thirteen deaths a day

Vrana is among millions of Americans who have been injured in workplace accidents in recent years. At least 13 people die every day, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

OSHA, which is tasked with ensuring safe environments for the 130 million mostly private sector workers in America, employs fewer than 2,500 inspectors to handle the load. According to OSHA, there are nearly 8 million workplaces nationwide. By that count, it would take about 100 years for inspectors to visit each one.

While the total number of workers injured each year has decreased significantly since 1970, when the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed, experts say the rate of fatal and non-fatal injuries is still far too high. In 1970, there were about 38 worker deaths a day, compared to 13 a day in 2014.

“Thirteen deaths a day is 13 deaths too many,” said David Michaels, the assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. “We have a long way to go … that's why we're still pushing hard.”

Even without the resources they say they need to prevent more injuries, OSHA inspectors are doing what they can to be proactive.

“Most inspections we do are not following up on injuries or fatalities. In many cases, that’s too late,” Michaels said. “We don’t want to inspect [only] after someone’s been hurt. We want to impact that workplace beforehand, so the vast majority of our inspections are at high-hazard workplaces.”

Michaels said OSHA requires employers to contact them when a worker has suffered an amputation at work. 

[When I had] about three feet left to crawl, I started using my legs cause [I was] losing blood and tired. [That’s when] I really started like, ‘Holy crap, I’ve got no legs!’

John Vrana

“For the majority of these notifications, we actually don’t inspect,” Michaels said. “We get on the phone.  We talk to the employer. We say, ‘We’d like you to investigate and figure out what were the root causes…and tell us what you’re going to do to change it so that doesn’t happen again.”

In many cases, OSHA issues no financial penalty to employers, though it does in the most egregious instances. It has also developed a new partnership with Department of Justice to penalize employers that “willfully endanger” workers, or who try to cover up details of an accident, a deal that helps with cases like that of a roofing employer in Philadelphia, who recently pleaded guilty to an obstruction of justice charge and now faces prison time, Michaels said.

‘Life don’t stop for you’

The federal government works with state partners to investigate accidents across the country.  Currently, Utah’s OSHA branch, UOSH, is looking into Vrana’s incident.

Nobody from John Kuhni Sons Inc., where Vrana was injured, returned America Tonight’s requests for comment. According to UOSH records, the company was previously fined more than $1,200 in 2009 for allowing an employee to operate a forklift with inadequate training, a “serious” infraction. 

Vrana said he knows no one intended for him to get hurt. But in a family business, he said, everyone is in a hurry and can easily become complacent.

“I bet my father-in-law wouldn’t care if I took three more hours [to do the work that I was doing] and still have legs,” he said, fighting tears. "Everybody just needs to stop. The whole world isn’t money.”

Vrana, who says he suffered a MRSA infection twice since the accident, now receives workman’s compensation to help pay for his medical bills and prosthetics. His relatives also set up a GoFundMe account for additional financial support.

He has been strengthening his legs daily by stretching, exercising and practicing walking on a pair of “stubbies,” short, prosthetic legs that are not yet equipped with an artificial knee.

He is able to drive with the help of a steering wheel device, and one day, the talented water-skier hopes to get back on his boat.

“Life don’t stop for you,” he said.  

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