MullaleyBut one person, in particular, took exceptional notice.
“She’s absolutely amazing, such an inspiration,” said Sydney Learning of Cartwright, Labrador, who had her leg amputated at the hip in 2005, when she was 15, as a result of a medical condition.
“I felt such a connection with her. Her story really resonated with me on a personal level. Hearing her explain how her parents felt emotionally, her friends. … I got that same reaction after my amputation.
“But to see how she’s thriving and how she uses (her experience) as a (platform) to help others showed me that we can be a positive role model in our community.”
Learning was one of about 65 people, including many local business people, who attended the St. John’s Board of Trade luncheon at the Holiday Inn to take in Carnahan’s speech.
In her 35-minute presentation, Carnahan — using humour, eye-opening statistics and her own personal story — drove home the importance of workplace health and safety.
Carnahan was a 21-year-old university student in Miramichi, N.B., working a summer job at a paper mill on Aug. 11, 1999, when the life-changing incident happened. While stepping over a conveyer machine — something she had done many times before after seeing others do it — her foot got caught in the belt. For three seconds, she was dragged in before an employee, hearing her screams, stopped the machine.
“People say, only three seconds? It’s not only three seconds when it’s your foot getting crushed,” said Carnahan, who credits the man who stopped the machine with saving her life.
“I remember being terrified and screaming while this man lay across my body so that I couldn’t see below my waist as the maintenance crew worked to disassemble the machine to get me out.”
She recalls the horrified look on her friends’ and co-workers’ faces seeing her leg jammed and her parents’ faces at the hospital looking at her missing leg.
“There’s not a lot that can prepare you for having a leg taken away. It was difficult for me to wake up, to look down and see there was nothing,” said Carnahan, who had her right leg amputated below the knee.
“It was even more difficult to wake up and have my parents think I was still sleeping and seeing them look down at nothing where there used to be something.”
Carnahan never thought she would ever get hurt at work — an attitude, she said, many people have when they leave home every day.
“The first step in not getting hurt is simply knowing you can be. I learned my lesson the hard way. What happened to me can happen to you,” she said.
“Complacency is a killer.”
She said it’s not good enough for companies to have countless signs about safety around if they’re not going to ensure they do everything to ensure it.
Carnahan said three Canadians die every day in workplace incidents.
“Until we get zero injuries, until nobody is getting hurt, then we can all do better,” she said.
She said many things at the mill that day contributed to her accident. The mill was later fined $10,000 — half of the cost of her prosthetic leg, she joked.
“People say, don’t you want higher fines? No, I don’t want higher fines. I want there to be no need for fines. We’ve got to do more. We’ve got to do better,” she said.
“I could stand up here and point fingers … but I would never have enough fingers to point to make my leg grow back. This is done and placing blame does not bring back the person you love. It doesn’t change the damage that’s been done. All it does is make you bitter, and when you’re bitter, you can’t get better.”
She said everyone must take responsibility for themselves to make the right decisions about safety.
She said people often operate “on autopilot” and don’t pay attention to the hazards they face every day.
“One person (injured or killed) is one too many,” she said. “And if you don’t believe me, then I can give you my dad or mom’s number because they’ll tell you that one person is one too many when it’s your daughter, your loved one.”
Carnahan encourages parents to talk to their children who are in the workplace and point out to them the importance of not following their peers in any unsafe situation.
But she was quick to point out that safety is not just important in the workplace.
“I always say safety is not 9 to 5. You can’t punch in and punch out. You can’t make it four on and four off,” she said. “Safety is an attitude, it’s a way of life.”
Carnahan said it’s crucial that people not be afraid to speak up when they see hazards.
“If something at work makes you uncomfortable, you say no. You ask questions,” she said. “You never know — that one thing you say could be the thing that saves someone’s life.”
She ended her talk by getting everyone in the room to “stand up for safety” and chant, “If you see something, say something.”
As she made her way back to her seat, Carnahan was greeted by Learning. The two chatted and had photos taken together.
“I’m so glad I came here,” Learning said, “and I’m so glad I met her.”