WFCA 2024 - Russell Claus Takes the Stage on Work Safety

VICTORIA, B.C. - Jan.31, 2024 - Russell Claus is a volunteer with Threads of Life, who, in the summer of 2010, suffered a workplace injury that changed his life forever.

Claus spoke at WFCA 2024 Annual Conference on Jan 31 in the afternoon. "I was a tree planter," he said, on behalf of Threads of Life, as he focused on Canadian families dealing with workplace fatalities. 

"I am with the speakers bureau of the organization. I am here to make the face of tragedy real. I was 25 years old on a hot July day when I suffered workplace injury."

Claus explained how it was a great time in his life, as he was engaged to marry, and studying at University of Victoria when he went north in May of that year to go tree planting.

"It was the same each morning, wake-up, go to the mess tent, then to the crew vehicle, and arrive at the cut block to plant trees.

"From May to late July, I lost 15 pounds, I was hypoglycemic, but I pushed myself especially toward the end of the planting season, working hard through the pain, fatigue, and feeling unwell.

"It was the last full-day of the planting year, so we set big numbers for ourselves and decided to go for it. Sure it was a hot day, but we had favorable grounds. As the day progressed, I began to feel nauseous, dehydrated, and heat exhausted, yet I went on despite knowing better. By the time the day ended I felt very bad.

"We drove around the cut-block," to wrap up this worksite, gathering personnel and equipment. Everybody was happy, but Claus was becoming sick. "I needed to stop and get sick. I insisted we stop on a pullout. I got out and moved up beside the front, driver's side of the running truck. I knew Kyle had got out of the driver's seat and went to the back of the vehicle. I leaned around the front of the vehicle to wave him off. But he wasn't there."

Kyle, unbeknownst to Claus, was behind the wheel again when suddenly a loaded truck approached to pass on the single lane logging road, and Kyle, the driver, had, "lost sight of me. He needed to move aside for the loaded log hauler, so he hit the gas. I was leaning in front of the vehicle and he hit me, causing me to ask, 'Why is the truck moving?'"

The front passenger side wheel rolled over his hip. "I felt the exhaust pipe burning a hole in my shoulder."

Unfortunately the drills to prepare an emergency response vehicle were the responsibility of Claus. He was the one who had trained for it. "I was underneath the vehicle and tried to crawl out. I wondered if I could move my feet, so I wiggled my toes and concluded it was not paralysis. Most of the  pain was in the burned shoulder, and a coworker grabbed my arm and pulled me out from under the vehicle.

"I asked them to roll me over, where I felt pain in the hips and groin. My pelvis was broken in five places, the urethra severed, and there were other complications."

The 50 minutes of egress from the workplace were the most painful in his life, laying on a wooden board, bouncing down an an unpaved logging road, contemplating all these fearsome injuries. He was yet thirsty from dehydration and heat exhaustion, and knew not what to do, so, "I began to assess myself," all the while his bladder filling with blood at the severed urethra.

"I wondered what was ruptured and calculating how much time I had to live within the timeframe of the journey, I decided I was going to die on the way to town, due to my trained estimate of the survival rate from the injuries, and the estimated time of arrival at a hospital. I took off my oxygen mask and told them there is no way I am going to make it so let me go.

"I went into semiconsciousness," and they reattached oxygen while Claus had given in to (what appeared to be) his inevitable death. "I was seeing shadows of trees whip by," eventually startled awake at the transfer from stretcher to gurney at the hospital. He has never forgotten the resignation in his situation so close to death's door. He is struck to this day by the comfort he had taken from this resignation.

The doctors dealt with the repair to the bladder to stanch internal bleeding, and began assessment of the myriad injuries. Reconstructive surgeries would ensue. Injuries fatigued him and morphine dragged him down to kill the pain.

He went to Prince George, and in the hospital it was quiet and dim, he was alone, where he was saddled with a superpubic catheter, pain radiating up from his lower torso, "My mind began to ask what had happened to me. I felt tears come into my eyes. I was scared, defeated, alone. My fiance arrived, and months of rehab and recovery, and surgery took place."

Claus was wheelchair-bound, muscles atrophied on pain killers, and says he fell into a state of complete dependency, suffering sleepless nights with raging restless leg syndrome, common bodily functions gone missing in action, uncertainty in his romantic relationship, "Would I walk, limp, have sex? I had no answers."

More surgery came and went. What remained was uncertainty of recovery, "I did begin to recover in a way, but cramps, high blood pressure, extensive nerve damage, antibiotic exhaustion, multiple urinary tract infections, plus the mental impact from the scarring, having sweating hands, fear of crossing streets, a return to school was unmanageable."

He realized in the depths of making it from sick to recovery, some of the search for wellness wasn't going to come to pass. He wasn't going to be the same. "It's not the same life. I do hike the West Coast Trail," (difficult to imagine doing this in the face of chronic pain and life-long complications).

At this moment in his talk, Claus turned to the subject of family, friends, and coworkers. The first rumination was about Kyle, who came forth, and Claus learned he had attempted suicide after the incident, "I am still in his dreams in a bad way.

"Helene, we spoke differently to each other after the incident, we got married, but we are not any more. She was so spent from managing my life, it was huge PTSD to her.

"What I learned. I thought 'whatever' but if you get hurt at work, others bear the injury for the rest of their lives." 

He works in health and safety. "It's my job to put the information and training out there, to teach safe and supervised work, advocate for safety-oriented changes, and ask for vigilence in finding experienced crew chiefs. Sometimes the amount of supervision they have is as little as two months.

"Do I question how our work is structured? My pushing hard that day was costly to my health, and almost cost me my life." It was the challenge and the opportunity which drove him past the boundaries of safety. 

"I was a young worker when that happened, but plenty of people continue to work around heavy equipment, and must always remember, lapses in concentration and failure to comply to regulations and standards of practice in the field will cause a rippling effect."

Reach out to Threads of Life

Claus currently resides in Halifax, N.S., where he works in occupational health and safety. Originally from Victoria, B.C., he completed his Master’s degree at McMaster University where his studies and thesis focused on worker safety in the resource sector.

Q & A
Q. Did you have counseling in the care after the incident?

A. I was required to get counseling and family was also availed of counseling services. Through Critical Incident Management programs, there is treatment for psychological injuries, immediate counseling and support is made available to those in critical incidents.

Freelance Writing by Malcolm 'Mack' McColl in 2024


Russell Claus