Fueled by determination
This 55-year-old steamfitter proved that a crushing injury doesn’t have to be career ending. Learn how to improve your odds of a successful return to work.
posted July 22, 2016
If you spot Sal Carbajal in his golf cart tricked out with the pom-pom fringe, you might mistake him for a man of leisure on his way to play the back nine.
But you won't find clubs in Carbajal's cart. (Though you will find welding tools.) The 55-year-old steamfitter works on high-tech piping systems for Harder Mechanical Contractors in Portland. Two years ago, he was critically injured when a piece of heavy equipment crushed his left leg. The injury easily could have meant the end of his career. But with a lot of determination and a little help (that's where the golf cart comes in), Carbajal is back on the job.
As for the fringe? Well, you just gotta know Sal.
"One of those stupid mistakes"
A native of El Paso, Texas, Carbajal was hired at Harder Mechanical in 2002. To get certified as a steamfitter (a specialized form of pipefitting for high-pressure liquids and gases), he attended trade school and completed a five-year apprenticeship-all while holding down his regular job and raising six kids with his wife, Patricia.
Carbajal eventually became a supervisor and foreman, working long hours and making good money. At the time of the accident in June, 2014, he was training to run a Father's Day 5K.
Joe Bray, Harder's Northwest safety manager, was on his way to the job site when he heard what happened. The operator of an articulating boom lift had misunderstood a signal and moved forward, rolling over Carbajal and crushing his left foot, ankle, and lower leg beneath tons of heavy machinery. "It was one of the scariest injuries we've seen," says Bray.
When the ambulance arrived, Carbajal was conscious but in shock. As he was being carried away, Carbajal reached over and playfully stuck a finger in the boom operator's ear-just to let him know there were no hard feelings. "It was just one of those stupid mistakes," he says.
"If he wasn't going to give up, why would we?"
Over the next several months, Carbajal had multiple surgeries to repair extensive bone and tissue damage. At one point, doctors feared that he might lose his foot. The fact that Carbajal was in excellent physical condition before the accident helped his recovery.
SAIF’s return-to-work programs help nearly 80 percent of injured workers with disabling claims return to work within the first 60 days.
Carbajal's employer was committed to his recovery as well. Harder Mechanical kept him on full wages, even in the hospital. "They made sure he knew that he was still a valued part of their workforce," says Kathleen Straub, Carbajal's claim adjuster at SAIF. From his hospital bed, he worked online to complete continuing education credits. When he was ready for modified work, Harder set him up in the warehouse organizing and standardizing the company's high-tech orbital welding equipment. With his field experience, Carbajal is able to suggest ways to streamline work processes. "It's a win for both of us," says his supervisor, Daryl Allan.
Jennifer Massey is the corporate safety director at Harder. She says Sal never stopped trying to get better, even when the doctors declared him permanently partially disabled. "If he wasn't going to give up," she says, "why would we?"
"I'll be damn close"
With his permanent impairment, and not many years from retirement, Carbajal could have accepted a settlement and called it quits. But he still had valuable skills to offer. And maybe more importantly, he was determined to remain productive.
In consultation with SAIF's vocational counselor, Nicole Colyer, Carbajal's employer created a new position that allows him to work in-house on projects that are highly skilled but less physically demanding. The preferred worker program helped pay for equipment that helps him do his job, including special shoes with curved soles that make walking easier, rolling stools that allow him to rest his leg so he can stand longer, and a motorized scooter for getting around inside the warehouse.
Open communication between all parties is vital. “Even though this was a very complex claim, there wasn’t litigation or conflict because we trusted each other,” says Straub. “We were all working for the best possible outcome.”
And then there's that tricked out golf cart. Because it's street legal, Carbajal can cruise-in style-up and down the hill between the warehouse and the fabrication shop.
The pain from his injuries may never go away. But Carbajal doesn't let it stop him. "I know I won't get back to 100 percent," he says. "But I guarantee you I'll be damn close."
Improving your odds of success
Although not all injured workers can return to what they were doing before they were hurt, several factors can improve your odds of a sucessful return to work.
1. Motivation is huge.
"This claim had all the earmarks that it was headed for permanent total disability," says Kathleen Straub, SAIF claims adjuster. "That would have been a very sad outcome."
What made the difference? "Sal really wanted to work. He really wanted to be with his employer. It would have been a real blow to feel like he wasn't useful anymore."
2. Relationships are key.
Open communication between all parties is vital. "Even though this was a very complex claim, there wasn't litigation or conflict because we trusted each other," says Straub. "We were all working for the best possible outcome."
3. An open mind helps.
Having an accurate job description at the time of injury is important. But don't stop there.
"Take the time to find out what the worker's skill set is," says Jennifer Massey, corporate safety director for Harder Mechanical. Vocational counseling services can help. "We found out that Sal had more skills than we knew about."
Learn more about getting back to work.
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