A Splitting Pain
Growing up in a small town in Idaho, my family supplemented the household heating costs in the wintertime by burning wood in an old cast iron stove. The heat was enveloping, constant and comforting on the long, cold winter nights that are so frequent in the Mountain West.
For more than 20 years, my late summer weekends consisted of getting up before sunrise and loading my dad’s old Chevy pickup (and an even older homemade truck bed trailer) to head into the woods. We would fall trees in preparation for the dark, seemingly never-ending winters of southeast Idaho’s Caribou Highlands. In those woods, my brothers and I learned commitment, fortitude, the value of hard work and how to be real-life manly lumberjacks.
I should mention this was the 1980s, when riding in a truck bed and operating chainsaws without leather chaps, face shields or other personal protective equipment wasn’t as frowned upon as it is today. You know, it was the good ole days. Under the watchful eye of our father, my brothers and I survived years of falling huge trees, chainsaws and axes, and nature without nary an accident. Sure, there was the occasional sprained ankle, minor bumps and bruises or one of us getting run over by a rolling log, but it was never anything too serious.
Over the years, the operation became more sophisticated and our methods evolved with the times. We learned the value of good PPE to help keep us safe and wore it regularly. Our splitting time also decreased from weeks using an axe or maul to days using of a hydraulic log splitter. While this machine increased our risk, we still managed to stay accident free — that is until fall 2010.
Over the course of four weekends leading to October 2010, my dad and I performed our normal routine of loading the truck and trailer with the equivalent of six cords of wood. To split the logs into usable pieces for the stove, my dad borrowed his friend’s hydraulic wood splitter. It was a handmade machine that used an old lawn mower engine and a hydraulic press. The splitter had no real engineering safety measures to speak of, but it worked — sort of. The engine was fickle and required the choke to be in just the right position to continue running. When it worked, though, it ran like a champ, splitting wood faster than ole Paul Bunyan himself.
My parents and I worked out a great system. My mother was in charge of running the press, or ram, forward and backward. It was my duty to put new logs in place to be split. My father’s job was to remove the split pieces of wood from the landing in order to keep the work area clear from buildup and free of tripping hazards. We considered ourselves seasoned professionals. After all, we had been doing this for 20 years. That’s when it happened — we found our groove, switched to autopilot and got complacent.
We were operating so smoothly and efficiently that I was putting the logs on the splitter before the previous log had even hit the ground. I would hold the log in place on top of the ram and, as the log fell into place, my mom would run the press forward. Now, a hydraulic splitter doesn’t run fast by any means; but it does run regardless of what is in its path.
As the log fell into place, I bent over to pick up a split log that needed to run through the splitter again. Unbeknownst to me, the log I was holding fell into place and my mother started running the ram forward. I felt a slight pinch in my glove on my left hand. As I jerked my hand back, I thought, “I better be careful. I don’t want to lose a finger.” I looked down at my hand and saw my index and middle finger glove tips were missing. “Well, crap,” I said, thinking I’d just ruined a perfectly good glove. Then I noticed the blood begin to pool. Panic set in when I realized that my fingertips were on the ground. The machine had split much more than wood.
I immediately applied pressure to my fingers as my mom dialed 911 and my dad brought me bandages and ice. He even picked up my severed fingers and put them on ice in hopes of preserving them for surgical reattachment. For seven and a half hours the surgeon tried to reattach my crudely amputated appendages. Unfortunately, his attempts unsuccessful, so I now have a constant reminder of the effects of a breakdown in communication and complacently in a work environment.
In the 20-plus years my parents had been heating their house with a wood-burning stove, we’d avoided any major accidents. In the eight years since I lost my fingers, the safety record has remained at zero major accidents. However, it only takes one moment of complacency and loss of communication for an accident to rear its ugly head.
Having nearly a decade to analyze an accident allows for some valuable insight on ways to improve the overall safety of my family’s wood-splitting process. My parents no longer use the self-made splitter. They now use a name-brand-manufactured splitter that has safety kill switches and self-stabilizing rails. The rails serve as a guide for the logs, allowing them to ride the rails rather than having to hold them in place while being split. The rail system keeps the user’s hands and fingers away from the sharp moving pieces that don’t discriminate cutting anything that comes against them.
My mother still runs the ram, but she now insists on a physical cue, such as eye contact and a head nod, prior to running the ram forward. Implementing these controls have allowed for a safer operation and an environment that is less likely to produce an accident. I still help them from time to time, but you can bet I now keep my fingers clear of any sharp objects and hydraulically operated rams. It was a painful lesson to learn.