An interview with Clara Morrison, former Louisiana Pacific mill worker.

Tracking Clara Morrison down when she’s not hard at work at one of her two full-time jobs is a lot like looking for a fourth-generation Montana rancher at New York City’s Fashion Week. It ain’t gonna happen. Clara’s similar to many thick-skinned Montana residents walking down the main streets of our rustic communities. She’s a survivor. Clara’s husband is unable to work due to an injury, so the task of keeping the family afloat fiscally is in Clara’s hands. Except Clara is missing most of her right one. Clara grew up in the small mountain mining town of Philipsburg, tucked into the Pintler peaks and near the shores of Georgetown Lake. She grew up water-skiing, riding motorbikes and challenging the boundaries of “women’s work.” For 34 years Clara was an employee of Louisiana Pacific lumber mill in Deer Lodge working as a grader and stacker operator; she retired in 2001. A mill veteran, at the age of 26 Clara lost every finger on her right hand “except three-quarters of my pinky finger” in a workplace accident. Clara took a break from her current “daytime” job managing the woodworking shop at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge to share her story ... and to demonstrate through her experience that high productivity in the workplace doesn’t have to equate to high risks.

What happened on the day of the accident?

The saw kept plugging up and would clog the stamper, which marked the finished boards. We all had a bad habit of using a “sticker” (small piece of wood used as a tool) to hit the sawdust out and unclog the machine. We would have them shut off the chain that propelled the saw blade and then after the sawdust was unclogged give a signal to start it back up again. The day I was injured the fellow who shut off the chain forgot I was still there working on the stamper and turned the machine back on. I was pushed into the saw. The saw took off all of my fingers on my right hand.

What happened after the accident to your hand?

I still suffer chronic pain to this day, more years later than I care to admit. I can tell you when it’s going to snow before it snows, I could be a weatherman now! Right after it happened, doctors tried to add the fingers back on but it didn’t take. Then they tried to make a thumb prosthetic and that didn’t work either. Next they said they could cut my arm off to the elbow and fit it with a hook, but I wasn’t interested in that. I was approached about a bionic hand some years later … but a side effect of the primitive muscle control was that I could crush my (then) newborn baby if I didn’t always use focused concentration when using the hand. I didn’t want to risk hurting my baby. Haven’t looked into it since.

What could have been done differently to avoid the accident?

Years ago no one pushed “lock out tag out” (lock out/tag out refers to specific practices and procedures to safeguard employees from unexpected start up of machinery or equipment). If that had been done it wouldn’t have happened. You cannot count on other people; my co-worker forgot about me and turned the saw back on without thinking. I learned about the steps you take, you don’t count on anyone but yourself: lock out, tag out. Back then your supervisors would get mad at you if you stopped the machine, so we got in the habit of taking chances. I was 26 years old, working in a man’s field and I thought I had to do what I was told. Now that I’m older, I would have said “No way!” I probably did the same thing 10,000 times before it happened. It only takes once … your luck will catch up to you.

Did the mill take action to make the workplace safer after your accident?

They didn’t do a lot; there were still many accidents. However, when I got promoted (and started the mill safety program) we took accidents from an average of one a day to years without even having scratches. We really promoted safety. We installed safety committees, with the support of Louisiana Pacific. When I started there, when you were hired you were trained for about two seconds and then expected to learn on the job. After I was promoted we hired trainers and extended the training program. Before I left we had three years without a scratch. The old thinking was that you had to cut steps to be efficient and productive, but I used to break records with safe crews. I proved that. You can have safe production.

How has the injury affected your day-to-day lifestyle?

I was right-handed, I write left-handed now. Everything you do automatically I now have to think about. Tie your hand back for a day and try to tie your shoes, zip your pants. I had to learn how to do many things differently. The big thing for me and for most people is that you feel different. I feel deformed. You don’t feel as good about yourself as you used to. When I was younger I felt selfconscious. My self-esteem took a big dip. I hid out from people. The doctor told me that when you lose a limb it’s like losing a loved one. It’s true. Ever since the accident and for the rest of my life I will have flashbacks of that day. Out of the blue. I’m not even thinking about it, and then the saw will pop into my head. Being safe is worth being safe. It affects you in many different ways.

What steps do you think Montana can take to make our workplaces safer?

I think the state has some good laws for the industries to protect their employees. Now to make people follow them is a different matter. When I was young, people would know when OSHA was coming and so we would make everything organized a few days beforehand, get everything fixed and clean everything up. How do we make people follow the laws? Years ago I made a video for Louisiana Pacific saying that I would still have my hand if I had followed safety rules. I lost my hand to save a $2.39 board. If I get hurt like that, you feel badly today. You will forget in a week or two. But I live with it. Every day. You have to take care of yourself. You have the right to say no.

Are you still water-skiing?

I used to love to water-ski, but the last few years all I do is work! When I got hurt that was what I was most worried about, if I’d be able to ski again. We were young and had a boat and thought all we had to do was just have fun! So that was one thing I worked hard on after my accident … learning how to ski again. I got a kneepad and put it on my elbow and was able to hold the rope there. I was able to ski again.