Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Remembering the Injured

We spend a lot of time in this blog talking about workplace death -- workers who never come home. We tend to neglect those who are injured -- sometimes seriously -- in workplace accidents. As little attention as fatalities get in the media, the injuries get far less, if any at all.

So it's appropriate once in a while for the media -- and the blogs -- to pay attention to those who lived through a workplace disaster, but will never be the same.

Michael Martin was the sole survivor of an explosion that killed two of his co-workers at the Bethune Wastewater Treatment Plant in Daytona Beach, Florida last January. Sparks from a cutting torch they were using to remove a damaged roof above a tank of methanol ignited vapors from the tank. Martin was severely burned in the explosion and was given only a 20% chance to live
Martin, 42, has seen a lot in the six months since a chemical tank blew up underneath him while he and two co-workers removed the metal roof above it with a cutting torch.

The longtime city maintenance worker watched his two friends die in the fiery accident -- and has struggled to cope with the guilt of being the sole survivor.

He also has witnessed his physical and emotional health crumble, along with the independence he had taken for granted. Once a handy, self-reliant, bear-sized man who was in the middle of fixing his own roof before the accident happened, Martin now has such badly burned and mangled hands he can't open a Gatorade bottle without help from his wife. The injuries could prevent him from working again, and he agonizes over how he will provide for his family.

Martin has many outside and inside scars that need to heal before he can move on with his life. But even then, he said, he isn't sure what to expect for the future.

"I need more time to get my life together," Martin said. "Everything I had planned, I'm going to have to reconfigure."
His financial future is also problematic:
The rock in the family has been his wife, Phyllis. To manage the house that's brimming with family members coming and going all day and get her husband to appointments with doctors and therapists almost every day, Phyllis had to quit her job at a nursing home.

Martin doesn't know what the future holds. He'd love to go back to work someday, but he has to get his strength back first. That's a day-to-day thing, he said.

Since the accident, bills have stacked up at the Martin house. His medical bills have been covered by worker's compensation, but he gets only half his pay from the city -- maintenance workers average about $30,000 a year -- as long as he's collecting the compensation. And Phyllis isn't working.

To help out, the city opened a bank account to raise money for the three affected families and the Martins opened an account of their own at Wachovia Bank.

Martin said he misses working at the city and even wakes up in the morning thinking he needs to get ready to go.

"I've worked all my life," he said. "I don't know what to do now."

As a child, Martin -- the youngest of 10 children -- would accompany his father to his many odd jobs, from demolishing houses to chauffeuring a local attorney. This is the first time he's been unemployed since starting his family as a teenager. He's been trying to figure out what he could do, but he knows his options are limited.

He's altered many plans he had made for his family. For example, he'll never make the 30-year retirement mark with the city of Daytona Beach now. He was seven years shy.
Happily, his spirit is good, for now:
Martin also has learned to laugh again. His sister recalled several times in the hospital when he would burst out with a joke -- like the time his family was eating ribs in his room -- against hospital rules -- and he told the staff on them because he still couldn't eat solid food and wanted a bite.

"He made so many jokes, he would bring us to our knees laughing," Gadson said.

Since he's gotten settled at home, he's become "Michael" again, they say. He's stayed positive and isn't "down-in-the-dumps" feeling sorry for himself as they expected, Gadson said.

He's trying, he said, for their sakes, but the pain is still there. He just hides it well.

His seven children have struggled with seeing the melted version of their once-hulking dad. After facing the possibility of life without him, his 18-year-old son, Michael Jr., admitted that he'd miss his father's guidance. Martin said that surprised him because the teen never took his advice.
He's unemployed, on workers comp and half salary, his wife isn't working, the bills are piling up, and he has a long recovery ahead of him.

There are lots of Michael Martin's in this country, some better off and some worse off. Many remember that 15 workers were killed at the BP Texas City plant last year, but the 170 injured -- many seriously -- have been largely forgotten.

Let's try to remember.