"It hit us all hard," said Stefan Joppich, recalling the events of February 6 last year, the day of the accident.
Stefan Joppich, plant manager, is a tall man and a trained metalworker, like Mr. Tabeling. The two have known each other since the 1980s. "Back then the employer was Pfanni," said Stefan Joppich, pointing in the direction of the faded logo on the factory tower. After the plant was taken over by Emsland Food GmbH, it developed into what is probably the largest potato flake factory in the world. Around 400,000 tons of potatoes arrive here every year and leave the plant as semi-finished and finished products, which are used, for example, to make chips or soups. The plant has 120 employees. "Once it is running, just let it run" is the motto of the plant, which operates in four shifts. Laboratories are responsible for quality assurance while experienced maintenance technicians ensure that the machinery is well-maintained and in a good state of repair. One of them is Martin Tabeling.
Not a day like any other
February 6, 2019, started like any other working day for Martin Tabeling, at 6:00 on the factory floor. On his schedule was the maintenance of roller mill No. 2. A routine job for the slim, average-sized man. He tells us what happened next on the factory floor – a small, bright hall with several roller mills.
"When I restarted the system, it didn't run smoothly. You can hear it.” He points to the side cover of the roller mill, which is more than two meters high. "I opened this with my square box wrench to look at the straps and idler." What happened next, he cannot remember. He blacked out. When he came to he saw his crushed left hand and cried for help. He was cold, but he felt no pain.
He thought that he would no longer be able to work as a maintenance technician. But just seven months later, he walked once more through the factory gate – and to his old job. His first round brought him back to roller No. 2. "It's like riding a horse. When you fall, you have to get right back into the saddle."
In the first weeks of reintegration after the accident, he did not go back to working 40 hours straight away. "In rehabilitation, this phase is called ‘work and stress testing’," explained Matthias Wortmann, Mr. Tabeling's rehabilitation manager.
The two spoke by phone a few days after the accident, and later the BGN employee came to the hospital. Since then he has coordinated the rehabilitation plan with Mr. Tabeling, the medical specialists and his employer, Emsland Food. Mr. Tabeling is now working full-time again. Thanks to the artificial limb, he can grip and rotate with his left hand. Where necessary, younger colleagues support him – the Emsland Group is a training organization.
For Tabeling's boss, Stefan Joppich, it was clear from the outset that he wanted his colleague to return to work. "What you have in your head we need back on the floor," he said on a visit to the hospital shortly after the accident. Some colleagues had already been by; these were crucial moments for Mr. Tabeling in the first days after the shock. According to Wortmann, it is usually the best solution if employees can return to their company, even if, unlike Mr. Tabeling, they cannot go back to the same tasks.
"It went really well," confirmed the BGN supervisor, Manuel Gehrke. Praising the first responders and the rescue process, the prevention expert from Hannover said: "The three colleagues who came to Tabeling's aid immediately after the accident did everything right." The plant management had immediately arranged for a helicopter to land on the site, and the emergency doctor had the patient flown to a trauma center, the Berufsgenossenschaftliche Unfallklinik in Hamburg.
Thanks to an immediate accident report to the BGN, Gehrke himself was also on site very quickly, as were the police and trade supervisory authorities. "This allowed us to reconstruct the course of events," said Mr. Gehrke. A rag Mr. Tabeling held in his hand during the visual inspection probably got caught in the roller and quickly pulled his hand in. Another advantage of a quick accident report is that the BGN can ensure an accident victim gets admitted to one of the clinics run by statutory accident insurance organisations. "These are often vital decisions," emphasized the prevention expert.
The right tool
While the hand could not be saved, it was amputated in a way that optimized the use of an artificial limb, which could be controlled by Mr. Tabeling. "Without the second hand, one fumbles everything," he said, reflecting on how he learned to butter his bread again. He was all the more pleased about the clinic's direct contact with a prosthesis manufacturer, who presented him with various models. The choice fell on a gripping tool, which after some training the maintenance technician is now using skillfully. The man with the narrow white moustache also has a "going-out prosthetic," which looks like a real hand, but wears it rarely.
"I think people should be able to handle the sight of me." The case shows that the financing of aftercare and rehabilitation after an accident at work follows clear rules. But it is not one-size-fits-all. Wortmann: "There is also the ‘personal budget’, which is a different form of benefit we determine on a case-by-case basis. This gives us the leeway to deliver appropriate benefits that are particularly important to the people affected.”
In the case of Mr. Tabeling, it was an e-bike with a low step, which he can ride safely despite his disability. Mr. Tabeling did not have a hobby that he can no longer pursue because of the amputation. He had already given up motorcycling: "Too dangerous these days."
In contrast to the first moments after the accident, the maintenance technician is sometimes in pain. The pain is coming from the hand he no longer has. "After all, it was there for 58 years," he says almost apologetically. He does take pills sometimes.
Thanks to the pain therapy that is part of rehabilitation, he knows exactly when he needs something and deals with it consciously. While he did initially refuse psychotherapy, he has now changed his mind and will try it out.
Such an event is a shock not only for the victim. That is why the rescue chain included a crisis team that offered psychological support to those involved in the company and also gave the accident report to Mr. Tabeling's family.
"The psychotherapy offer still stands. There is a doctor in the Emsland Group who is accessible to everyone," explained Manfred Nienaber, the occupational safety specialist at the Cloppenburg-based plant. "The accident was a reminder of how important occupational safety is."
Benefit of raised awareness
Those involved took advantage of the raised awareness to turn everyone's attention to safety. For example, in the form of training for all employees working in the accident area. In addition, they have identified together other hazards in their environment. As one of the first safety measures, a lock was attached to the side cover of the roller. The keys to this are given only to trained personnel against a signature. "This is exemplary," said Gehrke, praising the measures taken. To ensure that the mishap never happens again, a transparent door has been put in to let the technician check the running mechanism visually without being physically exposed to entrainment, as Mr. Tabeling was.
The plant manager, Mr. Joppich gets to the point: "The actions taken after the accident went well. We want to focus on the positives." One thing is clear, though: If Mr.Tabeling had a serious private motorcycle accident, the care afterwards would not have been as optimal as in this case, where it was covered by the employer's liability insurance.