COOKSHIRE, Que. – Stewart Harrison’s 40 years of truck driving all came crashing down on him at the side of the road Aug. 2 in an accident where he was just trying to play it safe.
Harrison and his wife Sharon Call had come off the highway just two months before, after driving team together for years, to drive locally and spent more time with their family.
While working for his new company, Products Ciment Sherbrooke, he picked up a load of manhole covers on his flatbed, but from the start, he didn’t feel right about it.
He expressed his concern about how the load had been secured, but those at the loading dock assured him it was fine.
A mile down the road, with that same feeling in his gut, Harrison pulled over to tighten a strap that was blowing in the wind.
“I made the decision that I needed to tighten it because I knew if I didn’t, (a manhole cover) might end up going through someone’s windshield,” Harrison said.
While Harrison may have saved some motorist from colliding with a 300-lb. cement Frisbee, he couldn’t save himself.
One tug of the strap later and a manhole cover slid off the top and crushed his left foot. Doctors said it was one of the worst examples they’d ever seen.
Harrison underwent seven operations to try and save his foot, but in the end he lost all five of his toes and a quarter of his foot below them.
“It was pretty painful for awhile,” Harrison said of his rehabilitation process.
It was also painful for his wife Sharon to see him go through the ordeal.
“To see a man whose eyes couldn’t even look you in the face (because of the painkillers) was quite heartbreaking,” she said. Though Sharon was not with her husband that day and avoided injury, she has been off the road ever since so she could take care of him.
Sharon now works part-time for Bell Mobility while her husband recovers at home. Both of them yearn to be back behind the wheel once more.
“It’s not even just the pain of losing his toes,” Sharon said of her husband, “but the pain of being newly disabled at 59 years of age and wondering, ‘What do I do next?'”
This jarring crisis of identity is one that plagues workers in the trucking industry far too often.
According to information on the Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board’s (WCB) Web site, in 2004 more than 4,000 Albertans working in the trucking industry were hurt on the job at a total cost of about $17 million.
The average cost of these injuries totaled more than $4,000 and took the worker off the road for an average of 35 days. The most common type of injuries include falls, motor accidents, and (like Harrison) being hit by objects.
“These accidents are far too frequent,” said Roy Craigen, general manager of Transcom Fleet Services in Edmonton, Alta.
He said people are in such a rush these days that often not enough time is taken to take proper safety precautions. But at the end of the day, Craigen thinks that foot placement is a critical key to safety.
“When you go to anchor down a load or you go to get out of your vehicle, and you don’t take the time to ensure you have traction and stability in your foot placement, that can lead to all kinds of terrible incidences where people are falling out of their trucks, they’re slipping on a deck or any kind of thing simply because of foot placement. They’re not giving it enough consideration,” Craigen said.
Though 4,000 injuries in Alberta alone is a shocking amount, thankfully the majority of those injured are able to return to work in some capacity.
Transcom works nationwide training managers, supervisors and dispatchers in the trucking industry and also runs programs where they contract work through carriers.
Often, those contractors are truckers who have been injured on the job.
Working with WCB Alberta, Transcom takes injured drivers and puts them through a 60-hour dispatcher/supervisor course. About half of the grads end up as entry-level dispatchers or supervisors.
“These guys have gone from being very down in the dumps because they had so much pride in being a professional driver and then (their injury) takes away all that,” he said.
“They really didn’t know what they were going to be doing beyond that injury because they couldn’t drive a truck anymore. And there was no real go-between between being injured and not being able to drive a truck, and a link back into the industry they know and love.”
Six months and five toes later, Harrison has only just recently started walking again.
Though he will bear the weight of his new physical burden for the rest of his life, he hasn’t let it get him down.
In fact, this isn’t the first time Harrison has been off work because of a physical ailment. About 10 years ago Harrison suffered a stroke and was paralyzed on his right side.
“You want to talk about determination of man,” said his wife with pride.
“He was completely paralyzed and we never thought he’d get into trucking again, but in 1999 he was back on the road.”
It seems Harrison’s stubborn body will triumph again, with doctors saying he and his wife should be back behind the wheel by the summer.
“One way or another I’ll be back trucking,” he said. “I can’t see why not.”
But even so, Harrison said he will listen to his gut from now on rather than risk another debilitating injury.
“Don’t listen to other people. Go by your own instincts. If you don’t trust the load, do something about it,” he advised.