scars have faded in 32 years

I kept my fingers, but only by luck

This post is inspired by the first article linked in Notes below. It reminded me of a painful lesson in capitalism from my college years. Fact is, I am reminded of it every time I pull on a doorknob. Many people have much stronger reminders – or their survivors do.

The job

About 34 years ago, I was working in a furniture factory in Johnson City, TN. The company produced furniture for rich people, in a complex of war-surplus Quonset huts full of mostly ancient machines. There were also a couple recently-built warehouse-style buildings. A sawdust-recovery tower loomed over the facility, waiting to explode as one in a hardwood floor factory across town had exploded. The constant din, worn wooden floors and flickering fluorescent lights set the stage for low-paid workers trudging from machine to machine. Many workers retreated to their cars for marijuana consumption over lunch hour. I was the only person who wore visible hearing protection. It was not what you would call a socially-responsible enterprise.

The machine

One day I was using a machine called a “wood shaper“, which is basically a giant 7 hp router turning a four-inch carbide cutting head at about 10,000 RPM. At that speed, the cutting edge of the head is moving about 175 feet per second. When woodworking machines are running, the cut zone is invisible; hardwood simply disappears when it enters. On production machines, powered rollers move the wood pieces through, as the operator (me) feeds them in.

Periodically the machine needs adjustment, which is as good a time as any for a bathroom break. I pulled down the lever on the wall, cutting power to the motor, then pulled on the machine shaft brake. This should have brought the shaft to a halt, and off I went to the men’s room.

Bathroom break

To be honest, I took my time. When I came back, I measured the finished pieces on my output cart. The pieces (crown segments for a cabinet), were about a thirty-second of an inch thin. That’s enough to make assembly difficult down the line, so I picked up a wrench to adjust the cutting guide further from the shaft. This is done by feel, with the carbide cutting head at a full stop. The cutting head appeared to be perfectly stationary. Only… it wasn’t.

The injury

I stood, looking at my mangled hand, watching the blood running off my elbow and spattering on the floor. Hunks of flesh hung from the inside of my fingers. In a surreal moment, I raised my hand and curled the fingers toward the palm. “Oh good,” I thought; “the adducting tendons are still attached.” I looked over to the man at the next machine. He was looking back at me, pale, shocked. I found out later, he went home for the rest of the day. The defective shaft brake had failed to stop the shaft, which continued to spin under momentum while I was in the bathroom. If the cutting head had still been turning the full ten thousand rpm, I would simply have lost my entire hand. Under the strobe effect of the ancient fluorescent lighting, it appeared to be sitting still, while still turning at some multiple of 60 rpm. At that reduced speed, the cutting head knocked my hand out of the way, ripping loose pieces of flesh.

The doctor

Later I watched as the doctor stitched all the hunks of flesh back in place. He had squirted a liquid which he described as “cocaine” into the wound, which did an effective job on pain. There are a LOT of nerve endings in human fingers; it was a long time before I could use the hand effectively again. Today, the scars have faded somewhat. The fingers are less flexible than they might be. I don’t know if it is coincidence that arthritis is more pronounced on that hand than on the other. My father wrote me a letter, saying; “There is a moment in the life of every woodworker, when he is afraid to look and see just what is left.” I found out later that accidents handled by the company’s contract doctor were never reported to OSHA.


  • Lawyers, Guns and Money: Workplace safety recidivists – life in the workplace, under a Republican administration.
  • Discuss this post on Facebook, G+, or Twitter.
  • When I say “furniture for rich people,” I mean like $700 for an end table, in 1981 dollars.
  • It should come as no surprise that I have spent considerable time ruminating over what I should have done. Picked up a piece of wood and tapped it to the cutting head, for example. Or just turned around and walked off the premises the moment I saw the inside of the place. One moment I was unaware of the safety implications of strobe effect, or that the shaft brake could be defective; the next…

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Older technology guy with photography and history background