Matt Pomerinke has no shortage of horrific workplace accident stories. He works full-time at a paper mill in Longview and visits high school classrooms and job sites on the side, talking about workplace safety and knowing your rights as an employee.

It doesn’t matter where you work, he says. Every job has hazards. He heard of a chef who cut his finger at work, and his hand ultimately had to be amputated because of an infection. The public affairs correspondent at the paper mill he’s employed at fell in the company parking lot and badly broke her elbow. It doesn’t just happen in saw mills, he explained to a captive audience at Curtis Senior High School in University Place on Friday, Oct. 19.

And he isn’t just speaking about these accidents second-hand. Pomerinke, 41, lost his left arm from the elbow down when he was 21 years old, working at a lumber mill — his first real job out of high school.

Workplace safety

Photo by Shelby Rowe Moyer.

As part of Labor & Industries Injured Young Workers Speakers Program, Pomerinke has traveled around the state with Labor & Industries officials for eight years now and has shared his story with roughly 60,000 students.

Young workers are injured on the job twice as often as older workers, according to L&I statistics. In 2017, 680 youth ages 17 and younger reported workplace injuries. In the same year, 60 employers received fines totaling $160,000 for violations involving teen workers, including lack of permission documents, and missed or late meal and rest breaks.

Pomerinke’s visit to University Place was the first one of the new school year. He was invited to speak to a culinary arts class that culminates with learning the process of getting a job. Culinary Arts Teacher Cindy Pratt said before students step foot into a kitchen, they learn about safety, and many of her students have already entered the workforce, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity for them to hear a personal account of what can occur.

“Teachers end up being looked at like parents,” she said. “You know how kids don’t listen to their parents, and after a while they hear teachers say the same thing over and over again, and they just disregard it. If you have someone come in with an actual injury and tell their story — that’s the quietest that class has ever been. … I think it made all the difference in the world.”

Pomerinke had been working at a lumber mill in Kalama, WA for three years when his accident happened. He had no job training when he first started, aside from a 10-minute facility tour and a five-minute overview of his job. Up until the day he got hurt, the safety procedures were all just “dumb luck.” He and several other guys regularly climbed into the machines while they were still running. Thinking back, he’d had better job training at his high school job working for Jack in the Box, which included watching a video, taking a test, and job shadowing a teammate. At the mill, he was thrown into the mix and learned as he went.

One night, he was cleaning up sticks after his shift, something he’d done “a thousand times before.” One of the sticks got stuck in a machine, and when he tugged on it, the stick snapped. He lost his balance for a second and the motor of the machine pulled him in.

“Even with earplugs, I could still hear all the bones shatter,” he said, grazing the prosthetic that now takes the place of his arm. “You scream, but you’re not sure if you’re screaming out loud or if you’re screaming in your head, because it’s so surreal, you can’t believe it’s happening to you. None of us ever think we’re going to be the ones that are going to get hurt, right? No, it happens to the other guy. Trust me. It happens, and it happens quick.”

One of his co-workers used a belt as a tourniquet and saved his life. It took about 20 minutes for emergency services to arrive and about 45 minutes to get him out of the machine. In 2001, at his current job working for a paper mill in Longview, one of Pomerinke’s good friends died trying to fish a loose piece of paper out of a machine. He was cut in half across the chest when someone readjusted the equipment, not knowing that he was underneath it.

“He died that day over a scrap of paper,” Pomerinke said. “There’s no job out there that’s worth your life. … He never got to go home to his family, over one scrap of paper. We don’t take those shortcuts anymore.”

After Pomerinke’s arm was amputated, he went through a couple surgeries and physical therapy, and then went back to the saw mill. No one shows up with a truck full of money, he said, you get rehabilitated and you go right back to work. He worked at the mill for 9 more months after his injury before getting his current job at the paper mill.

“It pays well,” he said. “It’s a good company, but it’s just a job.”

He said to the class, if there’s just three things he wants them to remember from this talk it’s this:

First, figure out what’s important to you and who you want to go home to at the end of the day, whether it’s friends, family, a boyfriend, or girlfriend. “Think about that while you’re at work. Don’t take a shortcut, because that can all go away.”

Second, learn everything you can about your job and get as much training as possible. Ask questions, he said, and learn your rights and responsibilities.

Lastly, look out for your co-workers. “It’s easy to say,” he said. “But it’s hard. It’s hard to go up to one of your friends or someone who’s been there for a long time and question the way they’re doing something. … But trust your gut. If it doesn’t look right to you, go talk to them.”

Pomerinke said he has a wife and two kids in high school now. When he did his first presentation eight years ago, he thought he’d do it once and never again. But if he can help prevent just one accident, then it’s been worth it.