The Worst Day I've Ever Had At Work
A bad day on the railroad is as bad as you'd think
I am a railroad employee, and I'm trained as both a conductor and an engineer. For those of you that don't know, an engineer is the person who controls the train, while a conductor is the person who has to be outside taking care of all the physical work. You start your railroad career as a conductor, and eventually when you have enough experience and seniority you can become an engineer. I'm sure you can guess which job is more dangerous.
Despite what you've seen in movies and TV, a conductor is not just someone who takes tickets, at least not when you're working at a freight railway. A conductor climbs on rail cars and walks for miles through uneven terrain next to the tracks. Rain or shine, crazy heat or extreme cold, mid-afternoon or middle of the night, you're outside working.
Most railroad employees are on-call all the time, which I probably don't have to tell you is not much fun. If you're one of the lucky ones, you can get on an assigned service run. That usually gives you a consistent start time every day and you can be pretty sure you'll be back home each night.
I was one of the lucky ones and I had an assigned service run, although I was the junior man on the crew so I had to work as a brakeman. A brakeman is basically a conductor's assistant, with all the same training but not enough seniority to work as a conductor. Needless to say, some conductors did not treat their brakeman very nice, and being a brakeman could be far from fun.
On this particular job I happened to be working with a very experienced conductor and engineer, and they were both incredibly nice people. I couldn't have asked for a better crew. Unfortunately, all the experience in the world can't stop accidents from happening.
An accident in most jobs is inconvenient and might even lead to a little time off, but the railroad is not like most jobs. I might go into that in more detail some other time, but for now I'll just stick with saying that working with hundreds of tons of locomotives and rail cars is an experience unlike any other. Accidents on the railroad frequently end in a death, so anything less than that is a win I guess.
The worst day I've ever had at a job happened in December. In Canada. I'm not sure how much some people know about winter in Canada, but for the most part it's cold and snowy. When I say cold, I'm not talking about a cool day where you need to wear a jacket. I'm talking about -40 degrees Celsius, which oddly enough also happens to be -40 in Fahrenheit. Cold is cold, no matter what measurement you're using. If you've never experienced -40 degree weather then consider yourself lucky.
Surviving a day working outside in -40 requires more clothing than most people should ever have to wear all at once. Two pairs of socks, long thermal underwear, sweatpants, a t-shirt, a long sleeve shirt, a sweater, coveralls, a thick winter jacket, toque, insulated work gloves, and surprisingly heavy winter safety boots. Sounds like I was packing for a trip somewhere, but that's what I was wearing, and that's just so you don't freeze. You still feel the cold.
Other than it being the coldest day of the year, my day started just like all the rest. Up at 4:00AM to be at work by 5:00, and outside working in the cold by 5:30 with not even the sun for warmth. After a little time working to get the train all put together, it was time to warm up in the locomotive and depart for the rest of the workday.
Every day followed the same basic routine, as we'd all been working together on the same job for a while.
Make a stop, leave some rail cars behind.
Head for the next stop, leave some more rail cars behind and pick up some new ones.
Make a stop, pick up some rail cars.
Head for the next stop, leave some rail cars behind and pick up some new ones. Except I only made it as far as leaving some rail cars behind. That's where my day ended, and it was my last day of work for almost a year.
We were in the middle of our work and all I had to do was get on the locomotive as it passed beside me. Getting on a moving piece of rail equipment can be awkward when you first try it, but it was something I'd done hundreds of times before. Maybe that was the problem. If you do something often enough, you start to forget about all the ways it can go wrong.
We were backing some rail cars into a track. The conductor was way back at the tail end of the cars and I was going to be in position to separate them from the locomotive when everything stopped moving. I was walking beside the moving cars and I could see the locomotive approaching me. Just like any other day, I was all set to hop on and catch a ride. The ladder that would lead me up onto the locomotive was almost at my position, so I turned to grab the handrails. My left foot went up onto the bottom step and I pulled myself up off the ground.
Or, at least, I tried to.
My gloves were covered in snow, and snowy gloves on smooth metal don't work very well. My hands slipped and my right foot fell back to the ground. All my weight pushed that heavy steel toed boot firmly into the ground, while the momentum I'd gained from my brief time on the locomotive kept me twisting to my right. There was a sudden terrible pain in my lower right leg.
What the hell kind of noise was that? Who knew a bone breaking from excessive twisting sounded like a pop?
I fell to my knees, leaning forward in pain. By this time the locomotive was far enough away that the engineer could see me kneeling in the snow, hunched forward. He asked what was going on, and all I could tell him was I needed a minute. I didn't know at the time that I had broken anything. After taking that minute to collect myself, I tried standing up. Bad idea. I couldn't do it. That was when I was started to piece things together. Now I was pretty sure my leg was broken, so the engineer pulled the train ahead to assist me. I pulled myself up to a standing position but couldn't put any weight on my right leg.
The engineer came out and I explained what had happened. He asked me if there was any way I could climb up onto the locomotive. It was about that time I realized things were actually pretty serious. As if a broken leg wasn't bad enough, we were probably a mile from the nearest road, and I couldn't even get up onto the only source of transportation. For anyone who may have forgot, it was still around -40 at the time. If you're standing still in that kind of weather, it doesn't take long to really feel the cold.
Except I didn't feel it.
As I stood there thinking about the situation, I realized that I wasn't really that cold. That didn't seem right. Then I realized my leg didn't really hurt. That was definitely not right. It only took a few moments to realize I was in shock. I had no idea what to do.
Thankfully, it was about that time when the conductor made it to the locomotive. Smart and experienced, he already had a plan. There was a foreman working on the tracks not too far away, so a quick call was all it took to get him heading towards us. As long as there were railroad tracks, a road was completely unnecessary for a railroad foreman. They have special wheels on their trucks that let them drive right on the tracks.
I have no idea how long it actually took for the truck to get there, but it felt like forever. I was standing there in the cold, which I was now finally starting to feel, balanced with all my weight on one leg while the other leg had an incredibly odd feeling that I won't ever forget. The best way to describe it would be that the lower part of my leg was hanging from the upper part. Not a good feeling.
The foreman's truck finally showed up and with some very awkward maneuvering, plus a lot of assistance, I pulled myself up into the back seat. To be honest, everything that took place between that point and the time we arrived at the hospital was a little hazy. The next part I remember clearly was arriving at the hospital and the staff telling us that they couldn't help me out of the vehicle unless we called an ambulance. Weird policy, but we managed without them.
I was taken in a wheelchair to the triage area of the emergency room where they asked a ton of questions and checked out my leg. I was at the hospital, I was out of the cold, and I was sitting comfortably while they examined my leg. Everything was looking good, or at least as good as it could be in that situation. That's when they started talking about my boot. My massive, heavy duty, steel-toed winter boot. An ER doctor looked at me and said he wasn't sure they had anything nearby that would be capable of cutting my boot off. Uh oh. I saw where this was going. They were going to have to undo the laces and pull the boot off. Keep in mind this is a 10" high work boot, not a little shoe that slips on and off. I still hate to even think about how it felt when they pulled that boot. I thought my leg was going to pull right off with it.
Once that part was over, I still had to sit in the ER waiting room for a crazy amount of time while waiting for a bed to open up. It felt so good to lay down when they finally found me a spot. A quick trip down the hall for an x-ray and the next thing I know the doctor is talking to me about how my leg has a spiral fracture and he's recommending surgery. I hadn't seen that coming. I thought a quick cast and a couple months off work would have me all healed. I spent the next two and a half days in a hospital bed with my broken leg, unable to get up for any reason, and unable to eat because my surgery could happen at any time. When they finally told me it was my turn for surgery, I was actually looking forward to it. I never thought I'd feel that way about surgery.
I ended up with a rod going all the way down through my tibia with screws in my ankle and knee to hold it in place. I did not like the look of my leg when I first woke up, but thankfully it didn't feel nearly as bad as it looked. The hospital gives you some good painkillers while you're there, but unfortunately that is not the case when you go home. So many people abuse painkillers that doctors are hesitant to prescribe certain ones, even to people who really need them. I basically got sent home with Tylenol. The first few days at home were the worst pain I've ever felt in my life, and I wouldn't wish that kind of pain on anyone.
The pain eventually passed, but it was still a couple months later before I was even allowed to put weight on my leg. Counting all the time for physiotherapy and a slow return to work, it was almost a year before I got back to my regular job, and my time back didn't last long. My body wasn't agreeing with the metal in my leg, so I ended up having another surgery to get everything removed. More physio, another slow return to work, and my total time off work because of one little accident was close to two years.
Who would have thought one little slip could have such a huge impact on my life? A single moment can change everything. The next time you're having a bad day at work, just think of my story. Your bad day could always be worse.