The state held a Worker Memorial Day ceremony in Olympia on Tuesday, but Matt Pomerinke was too busy to attend.
Instead, the 37-year-old paper mill worker spent his day at Mount Tahoma High School, trying to ensure that no one in his audience of young Tacomans would ever suffer an on-the-job injury.
“One second not paying attention, the one time you don’t ask how to do some new job, and you can have an injury that lasts forever,” Pomerinke said. “And they won’t just affect you, they’ll affect your wife or husband, your children, your family and friends … .”
Pomerinke had the complete attention of the students before he opened his mouth.
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As he walked to the center of the room, his short-sleeved shirt offered a clear view of a prosthetic below his left elbow. The rest of his arm was ruined by a machine he was working — without real training — at Gram Lumber in Kalama.
That was more than 16 years ago, on Jan. 7, 1999, but Pomerinke has no trouble recalling it. Just after his swing shift ended, he was cleaning up around the short chain conveyor belt on which he’d thrown boards all night.
“I was sweaty and dirty and ready to go home,” he said. “I was wearing a long sleeve shirt, reached for one last piece of wood that was caught in the chain.
“The wood broke, and for just one second I was thrown a little off balance.”
Pomerinke has relived what followed a thousand times, shared it with students and workers the past 5 ½ years.
“My sleeve caught in the chain, and it got dragged through the conveyor. I was strong, but in a contest with a machine, you’re never going to win,” Pomerinke said.
“It was like slow motion. I can see the all the blood, feel the muscles in my arm tearing, hear the bones being crushed.”
The accident affected everyone around him. A co-worker he’d grown up with saw the accident, punched the emergency alarm, then sat crying. An older worker scrambled to Pomerinke’s side, used his belt as a tourniquet.
Those co-workers, Pomerinke said, were never able to look at him again without reliving the moment.
A few hours after the accident, Pomerinke underwent the first of many surgeries, this one to amputate his crushed arm. A friend called his fiancée, told her what had happened.
“Nagwa stuck with me, we married and have two kids — a 14-year-old daughter and a son, 10,” Pomerinke said.
“To this day, my wife won’t talk about the night I was hurt.”
Pomerinke now works at KapStone Paper and Packaging Corporation in his hometown of Longview. When he speaks to schools in Washington, he does so as a representative of the state Department of Labor and Industries.
“Matt didn’t really want to do it,” said the program director, Xenofon Moniodis. “It’s not like he’s selling a book. He’s just a regular guy, working a regular job. On his days off, we’ll take him to 35-40 schools a year.
“He’ll talk to full assemblies, single classes or a group of classes, like today. And he’ll do it four times a day, sometimes more. He speaks to companies and safety conferences, too.”
Moniodis always drops in the numbers.
Young workers, those aged 16-24, are injured on the job at twice the rate of older workers. Three young workers are injured every hour, 79 each working day in this state.
A University of Washington study said as many as 230,000 teen workers are hurt each year in the United States.
For Pomerinke. the subject is far more personal.
“Before I know it, my daughter is going to be working,” Pomerinke said. “Maybe one of these kids will be asked to train her, and maybe something I say will make them do a better job.
“The first time I talked to a group, I bawled all the way through it. I haven’t forgotten what happened, I do recreate it each time I speak to a group. It took me two years before I could even talk to my wife about it.
“I’ll do this until I don’t think I’m making a difference.”