He was 18 when his hand was crushed on the job. Years later, he still wants answers
Kody Thorne is now studying workplace safety, and wants assurances that ski hill workers are protected
On a January day in 2019, in the wake of a fierce ice storm that struck New Brunswick, Kody Thorne was called to the Poley Mountain ski hill to help clear machines of what the storm had wrought.
Before the day was through, the 18-year-old's life would be changed forever.
Three hours after his shift started, Thorne was in his friend's car, holding his crushed left hand as they rushed to hospital.
"I was like, 'Wow, this is death. This is how it's gonna end for me," he said.
Four years later, after months of physiotherapy and several surgeries, Thorne knows he will never regain the full use of his left hand.
But he is moving on with his life, and indeed has an eye on a career in occupational health and safety, to work in a field which — as a young injured worker — he can bring a lived experience.
He has also dedicated the last year to better understanding what happened that day, hoping to help other people avoid the pain he has had to endure.
A communication error
With the hill closed in the wake of the ice storm, Thorne and two colleagues were assigned to work on equipment that had frozen over.
Thorne was brushing ice from the gears of the carpet lift — a large conveyer belt that takes people up small hills — when his hand was caught and then pulled in. The lift stopped.
In a panic, trying to pull his hand out, Thorne yelled to a nearby worker, "don't start the lift." The person halfway up the hill relayed the message to the person in the control room at the top.
But hearing only the words "start the lift," the worker at the top engaged the machine.
Thorne's whole arm was pulled into the inner workings of the lift's machinery. A coworker got a hacksaw to free his arm.
The incident had consequences for his employer. In court the following year, Poley Mountain Resorts Ltd. pleaded guilty to not providing adequate supervision, and was fined $3,000. Judge Andrew Palmer said he found no flagrant disregard for safety.
Knowing more now than he did as a teenager, Thorne wonders if enough has changed to prevent such an incident from happening again.
"Looking at it from a health and safety perspective now," he said in an interview, "even if there was supervision there, that lift still would not have been locked out, I still would have been in the same position, I still wouldn't have had the training."
Filling the gaps
After the company's fine was handed down, Stephen Moffett, the director of Poley Mountain Resorts, told CBC News the injury brought gaps to their attention, including the lack of lockout procedures that would have disabled the machinery, reducing the risk of someone accidentally turning it on.
In response to questions from CBC News, Jamie Hare, current general manager of Poley Mountain, said since Thorne's injury the hill has done a full safety review of processes and training. In a written statement, he said the company has a new management system to keep track of what training each employee has received.
Thorne said he still knows people who work there and has seen a change at the hill.
But he said it's not clear to him if anything has changed about supervision from WorkSafeNB, the agency that enforces the Workplace Health and Safety Act.
"I'd like to see [the changes] checked up on," he said.
Laragh Dooley, executive director of corporate communications for WorkSafeNB, said employers are not the only ones who need to keep workplaces safe.
"Everyone in the workplace is responsible for their own safety and for the safety of co-workers," she said.
WorkSafeNB conducts an average of 6,000 inspections a year. She said there are approximately 30,000 workplaces in New Brunswick.
She said the organization considers risk factors and incident records when deciding how frequently a workplace is inspected.
When asked what has changed since the Poley Mountain incident, she said WorkSafeNB worked with the company to ensure they had a proper training program for their employees who work around carpet lifts.
"Our investigation focused on the carpet lift, and no other similar equipment was identified as part of the investigation," she said.
Ski hills, she said, are generally not considered a high-risk industry.
Since Thorne's injury, the organization has conducted three inspections at the ski hill. Between 2017 and 2019, she said the organization had conducted five inspections.
And since 2017, WorkSafe has issued four orders: One to make the health and safety committee more balanced between employer and employee, one to provide proper PPE, one to revise the COVID-19 plan, and a stop-work order related to the machine that caused Thorne's injuries.
Recovery is a long road
Thorne said one way he's healing from the injury is to speak out. He said people don't often hear about what happens after a workplace injury.
The road to recovery so far has been long. He receives compensation benefits from WorkSafeNB. Soon, he may require another surgery to alleviate some pressure on his nerves.
The biggest challenge, he said, has been not being able to work and be productive.
"If I sit there so long then my brain will just run and run and run … I have a hard time sleeping," he said.
"Mentally, I do have healing to do. I don't have hate. I'm not mentally distressed, like, I'm not depressed from the whole situation. But it's just when to shut off."
To find a career, Thorne first considered becoming a truck driver, but that is not an option because of his injury. Interested in justice issues, he wanted to become a lawyer, but WorkSafeNB would not cover the cost of obtaining a degree because it does not match up with how much he earned at the ski hill.
He found his way to occupational health and safety. He said his personal experience is helping him find motivation. He took the licensing exam last month, he said, and he's now waiting for the results.
"If I pass this exam, I would happily stay in it and look for a more field job than office job," he said.
Meanwhile, Thorne said he's trying to find a mental health practitioner and is on a wait list. He said he has many friends and family who are supporting him while he makes sense of what happened.
"I rely on my support and network very heavily," he said.
"I'm very big on hosting my friends and family. I like stuff being proper, so when they come over, that gives me peace of mind."