Stopping short on safety has dire consequences

We warn our kids about drinking and driving, talking to strangers online and to never play with matches, but dangers often overlooked are the hazards posed by agriculture equipment and tasks on the farm.

The National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety reports a child dies in an agriculture-related incident every three days. Additionally, of the leading sources of fatalities among all youth, 25 percent involved machinery, 17 percent involved motor vehicles and 16 percent were drownings. The center also reports for working youth, tractors were the leading source of fatalities, followed by ATVs.

However, not all farm accidents result in death; about 33 children are injured in agriculture-related accidents each day. Nevertheless, on-the-farm injuries often lead to life changing circumstances.

An unforgettable day

Tyler Zander was a 17-year-old student in the summer of 2011 and on his second to last day of seasonal work at a grain elevator in Kremlin, Oklahoma. He was all set to start his senior year of high school in a few days and looking forward to his final year on the varsity basketball team.

“Our job that morning was to move grain from a big metal storage building to the elevators,” Zander explained. “To do so we had to use a floor auger which was about 12 inches in diameter and went up the middle of the floor and sat in a trough with boards covering it.”

Zander says he was shoveling grain into one of the small openings, which allowed grain to fall into the auger, when he heard a loud scream.

“I turned around and it took me a second to process what I was watching,” Zander said. “I saw my co-worker being pulled into the auger and the boards were coming up as it was pulling him further and further in. When I turned back to the auger, the only thought through my head, not knowing how to shut it off, was I can’t just stand here. So I instinctively ran to him and I remember reaching out. Then the next thing I knew, my mind went blank and the auger started to pull both of us in.”

Another employee was in the building operating a skid steer and ran to try to shut the auger off. Eventually the auger was stopped, but both boys had one leg stuck in the machine and Zander was panicking.

“I was screaming and trying to pull myself out, but I wasn’t budging,” he said. “I was trying to see how much of my leg was actually in the auger but I couldn’t tell because my co-worker was partly laying on top of me. I couldn’t feel or move my other leg and that gave me an inclination of how bad my injury likely was.”

A tedious rescue effort

Zander says rescue workers started to arrive at this point and he remembers his demeaner shifting.

“I accepted the fact that I was going to die, but I wasn’t afraid,” he recalled. “It was a turning point for my life because before this, there had been moments where I doubted whether God or heaven was real, but in that moment there wasn’t a doubt in my mind where I was going to go. It was the most peaceful and meaningful moment of my life.”

Rescue workers continued to brainstorm a plan to free the teenagers and save their lives. Zander estimates 50 to 100 men were in the building assisting—including all the area volunteer fire departments, the Enid Fire Department and the sheriff’s office.

“My dad was there in the building the whole time and I just kept telling my parents I loved them and to tell my brother I loved him and to just trust God,” he said. “The whole time I fought against passing out but I wasn’t sure if I was fighting against losing consciousness or if I was about to die.”

Eventually rescue workers were able to use a torch to cut the auger on either side of the boys and a truck with a crane was brought in to remove the auger. Chains were attached to the auger but when they went to lift it out, it just bent where the boys were stuck. It was soon apparent the trough must be cut out as well, so workers manipulated the boy’s bodies to safely cut the trough away. With great relief, the teenagers were freed, but at this point Zander lost consciousness, but regained it as he was brought outside the building.

Zander says he remembers seeing the helicopters before being loaded up and taken to OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City. When he reached the hospital, Zander’s parents were told he probably would not survive the night. Aside from the obvious trauma to his leg, Zander also had a tear in his bladder and he ended up needing 97 units of blood. Additionally, he had the worst open pubic fracture the trauma surgeon had ever seen.

“What that means is when the auger pulled me in, it just split me in half like a wishbone.”

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In all he would endure 32 total surgeries—30 during hospitalization and another two after his discharge. At the scene there was nothing left of his right leg from the knee down. A week after the accident, doctors suspected they would also have to amputate Zander’s left leg because he had developed four infections and was gravely ill.

“They couldn’t find the source of the infection so they just kept doing more and more amputations of the right leg because more and more of the muscle was dying due to the infections and just the lack of blood flow from the facture.”

Finally surgeons amputated the remaining right femur and from that point, Zander began to recover. He was lucky to have avoided becoming a double amputee, but still had a long road ahead. Zander ended up spending 2 1/2 weeks in the trauma ICU, then was transferred to a different floor for more treatment. At the end of the ordeal, Zander stayed 72 days at OU Medical Center. Zander’s co-worker survived, but also lost one of his legs.

Never the same again

Zander says after he was discharged from the hospital, reality started to sink in.

“I realized my life was forever different,” he explained. “I could no longer play basketball and I had to sit in a wheelchair on the sidelines, wishing I was out on the court and feeling as if I should be. Not being able to play was probably the hardest part of coming home. It was probably more difficult than my hospital stay, and my hospital stay was hell.”

Originally, doctors told Zander he would probably never walk again without crutches because of the level of his amputation and was only given a 5 percent chance of being fitted for a prosthesis.

“I had none of my femur left, I had a lot of scar tissue and I had had a skin graft. It took about two and a half years to get fitted for a prosthetic. A lot of trial and error and a lot of out-the-box-thinking. However, I finally got a prosthetic that I could use the summer after my freshman year of college.”

Zander says life was difficult when he was adjusting to his new situation. His life was turned upside down, but in the end he has learned to cope and has not looked back.

“I struggled until I was able to take the focus off myself and everything I had lost and put it on other people and everything I had gained,” Zander said. “I try to apply that to my life every day. I know I can’t always choose my circumstances, but I can always choose my response and I think after I was able to realize that, that was the point I stopped having bad days due to the accident or my disability.”

Additionally, Zander’s accident has had an impact on his chosen career path. While he has had an interest in medicine since he was 12 years old, he says the accident and the procedures that followed fueled his desire to heal others. These days Zander can be found walking the halls of OU Medical Center—now as a student, not a patient. He was also recently married. Zander plans to go into general surgery, which is a five-year residency. He is unsure if he will end up specializing in heart surgery or trauma surgery, but is open to moving back to a rural area.

Although Zander is living his best life these days, he knows how lucky he is to be living at all. However, he stops short of saying this accident was unpreventable. He does not look to pass blame in any sense of word, but rather hopes everyone working on a farm will realize just how dangerous agriculture can be and regard his accident as a wake-up call.

“I had no training to be working with the auger,” Zander said. “When this happened, the thought to shut it off didn’t even cross my mind, because I didn’t know how. If I had more training, it’s very possible I could have responded differently. If we had had it beat into our heads that if something goes wrong, do not run to the auger, run to the shut-off switch.”

Zander went one step further when explaining just how vulnerable young people can be when they are put in a precarious setting.

“I don’t even think at that age I should have been in that situation,” He explained. “We know that adolescents are not good at accessing risk and at that age a lot of young people think they are invincible.”

Furthermore, recounting Zander’s story should challenge employers to preach the dangers of agriculture machinery and what not to do. In the end, the decision to over-prepare during safety training could be the difference in saving a life or a limb.

Lacey Newlin can be reached at [email protected].