Monday, 4th May 1987
On Monday I caught two buses and one train in order to reach the large ICI adhesives plant at Deer Park by 8am.
It was a new complex and it had a massive sign at the entrance. On the sign, next to the ICI logo and the name of the plant, were the words “405 days without an accident”. The numbers were arranged in small wooden slits so they could be changed each day.
I supposed that the plant had only been open for just over a year and that so far they were accident free.
Inside I was kitted out with some very smart overalls, a plastic hard hat and, in exchange for a $35 deposit, I was given some work boots with steel toecaps. I was also given protective plastic spectacles and asked to wear them at all times.
My assignment was to work alongside Nick. Nick was a local lad but had just returned from touring Europe including the UK. Nick explained to me that he wasn’t at all keen on working too hard. His aim, he said, was to get as little done as possible. The supervisor, Rod, was from Brighton originally and he seemed to be prepared to let Nick get away with it. I soon worked out that the whole place was a bit chaotic and unorganised.
My exact role was supposed to be helping Nick fill one of 3 large vessels with Polyol in order to make Polyurethane foam. I was supposed to be opening bottles and barrels of different liquids and then pouring the stuff into a large vat.
What I actually did was just sit and watch Nick do as little as possible. As the stuff wasn’t actually being depleted at that time, he wasn’t really needed to replenish it. He would occasionally get up and open one of the bottles and pour it into the vat, but for most of the time he just sat there and chatted. Nobody seemed bothered by us at all. Occasionally people, who I assumed were chemists, would come round and dip instruments in the vat and make notes on their clipboards. They would just greet us and then walk off.
I finished at 4:30pm and called in at STA travel on the way back to see about ticket options to Adelaide or Perth. I went to Coles too and got some shopping in.
Tuesday, 5th May 1987
I commuted back to ICI and had another morning of largely sitting around. In the afternoon I was asked to drive the forklift over to the stores department to pick up a pallet of paper coffee cups. With all the watching and drinking coffee we were running out of cups. They asked me to do it because they felt sorry that I had no work. There were quite a lot of other Drake temps at ICI. They were mostly British but there were a few Irish lads as well. Nobody seemed especially stressed or particularly busy.
The sign outside now read “406 days without an accident”
In the evening I sat around the flat again. By now I had been introduced Andrew and Donna who were the couple from London in the 5th room. They were looking for their own flat as they wanted to stay in Melbourne all winter. My roommate Andrew was working in a factory in North Melbourne, Scottish Michael was working in a hospital, Jenny was a secretarial assistant in a law firm, but the others were looking for work or about to move on. The whole place was owned, or perhaps rented, by a local guy called Peter. He was in his 30’s and he popped in for 10 minutes or so each evening.
I cooked vegetarian spaghetti and watched the American Music Awards on the TV.
Wednesday, 6th May 1987
More mostly watching Nick do nothing.
“407 days without an accident”
Thursday, 7th May 1987
A repeat of Wednesday’s activities
“408 days without an accident”
Friday, 8th May 1987
After 2 hours of doing almost nothing Nick decided to take an hour off and visit the local bank. He told me to tell no one where he had gone and he stressed that I shouldn’t attempt to do any work on my own whilst he was absent. He headed off just before 10am. I sat there for a half hour and then decided to head to the canteen for a coffee.
On my way over I was walking across the factory floor when I saw an Irish lad I knew from Drakes. He was struggling on his own trying to move a large 6-foot-tall cylindrical vat. He was trying to get the vat into position to lock against two metal plates about two feet away. The Vat was on wheels and apparently weighed 1.5 tons. I offered to help and he readily agreed.
We just couldn’t get the vat to move. Someone called for a fork lift truck. The fork lift driver was instructed to push the vat gently forward and we were told to hold the handles on each side and guide it into position. The driver didn’t quite get the gently part of the instruction and he revved the forklift up and then released the brakes sending the vat flying sideways and into a metal guard on the side. My left hand, still on the handle, was immediately trapped in between the handle and the guard.
I didn’t feel any pain and I thought I had got off lightly, but when the forklift withdrew to free the vat I pulled my left hand out to see it spurting blood and at least one of the fingers hanging off. I turned round to see Nick, back from the bank, looking at me aghast. He shouted and Rod came running over. They both rushed me to the canteen and washed the wound and quickly telephoned for the on-site nurse to come over.
I was now convinced I had lost the index and middle finger. I told the nurse I was left handed but she told me not to worry as it really wasn’t serious. I felt better for a while. A few minutes later I overheard her on the phone telling the ambulance to come quick as it was a semi-amputation. I drained off again.
The ambulance crew were great. They laid me on a stretcher in the back and tried to calm me down by saying that a semi-amputation just meant that the fingers were still attached and could probably be reattached again. As we sped down the Ballarat Freeway they told me they had the siren on just for a bit of a laugh, the case wasn’t serious and they had seen a lot worse. I was sure that last bit was very true.
We arrived at the Western General Hospital at Footscray just before noon. After X rays and examinations, I was told that the fingers had burst but there would be little permanent damage. I may need some plastic surgery and I would definitely be having an operation.
I was undressed, put into pyjamas and moved to ward W2 to begin my first (and so far in 2017 my only) overnight stay in a hospital. Room 4 in ward W2 had a large window with a view of a construction site and there were 3 other beds. There were two older guys on the opposite side and next to me was a guy called Ken. Ken was sleeping when I arrived and I guessed from the scars on his skull he had a brain operation. When he woke up he confirmed this and told me he had had a tumour removed.
As I was going to be operated on I was told I couldn’t eat until afterwards. I began to feel very hungry. Time passed slowly and I spent most of it trying to recreate the scene of the accident in my head and work out what had gone wrong. Just before 11pm I was introduced to the anesthetist who told me he had worked in Brighton. He also told me that it had now been decided I was just going to have a local arm block and they wouldn’t be putting me to sleep.
The plastic surgeon introduced himself as Mr Leitch and said his English Colleague who would be putting my fingers back together was Phillip from London. Phillip told me to say a few words so he could try to guess where I was from. I put on my broadest Lancashire twang, carefully including the word four and pronouncing it as “fuer” so that he couldn’t possibly mix me up with someone from Yorkshire. He listened, thought and finally said in all seriousness “Yes, that’s it, you are from Surrey”. As they started to inject my arm I lay hoping that his surgeon skills were better than his knowledge of regional accents.
The atmosphere around the whole operation was so unbelievably informal that I almost enjoyed it. As they sat waiting for my arm to go numb the surgical team started to discuss what kind of pizzas they were going to order after this their last operation of the evening. They even pretended to seek my opinion at one point.
When I was ready they erected a screen between me and themselves and gave me some headphones. They asked me what radio station I wanted to listen to. I chose Fox-FM. They had obviously given me something to relax me as well as I felt almost a kind of high as I lay there listening to the late night show whilst my hand was reconstructed.
It took about half an hour. Afterwards Mr Leitch told me that Phillip had done a good job and plastic surgery had not been necessary. They wished me good luck and went off to enjoy their pizzas. I was wheeled back to W2 and my arm, now fully in plaster, was put into a sling machine and suspended from the top of the bed. After 10 minutes the night sister brought me a massive plate of sandwiches and fruit jelly. I sat and enjoyed them; a true midnight feast.
Saturday, 9th May 1987
I didn’t sleep much. The long-expected pain finally started to appear. The nurse came back and injected me with some pain relief and then came back every half hour until 4am to take my temperature and blood pressure.
I was served breakfast in bed and then spent a quiet morning talking to Ken. I started to think how many more days it would be before people would be able to come and visit me.
Then at 11am I was examined by a Chinese doctor who pronounced me fit enough to be discharged. It was fine he said. I would need antibiotics and obviously the hand would require special care for a few weeks but that was it. No ambulance needed. I could get the train home too.