Woman loses arm, gains life lesson

<p>Kina Repp lost her left arm on her first day of work at a fish processing plant in Alaska at age 20. Repp told her story Tuesday to an audience at the Blue Mountain Safety Conference in Pendleton. She holds up a prosthetic hook arm that she rarely wears anymore.</p>

Lessons learned the hard way usually stick like Velcro.

Kina Repp still recalls every detail of a lesson she learned her first day on a job at a fish cannery in Alaska — the day a machine gobbled up her arm in an instant, crushing it to the shoulder.

The Washington woman told her story Tuesday to people attending the annual Blue Mountain Occupational Safety & Health Conference at the Pendleton Convention Center.

Repp, now a mother of four, had traveled to Alaska with a friend to earn college money. Her first morning, the 20-year-old donned hiking boots and button fly jeans and set to work cleaning a conveyor belt. She still remembers the sponge she used was green.

Another worker didn’t notice she was working on the underside of the belt and flipped the machine to high speed. Her left arm disappeared underneath a 24-inch-diameter roller in an instant. She held tight to a bar with her right arm until someone shut off the conveyor belt. Then she lost consciousness.

“To this day, I wish I could forget the sound the machine made, the sound of my arm breaking, the sheer panic,” said Repp.

The lesson? Some extra preparation could have spared her the agony of losing an arm. Though a co-worker had flipped the switch, Repp said she must share some of the responsibility. She had ignored signs of danger earlier when her sponge had gotten sucked under a roller as the conveyor moved at slow speed. She didn’t understand why it was moving at all, but was afraid to ask. When the machine suddenly started moving at high speed she was caught unaware.

“I knew what I was doing was dangerous. I didn’t understand that machine,” she said. “I gave away my safety that day. It was 100 percent preventable. It absolutely didn’t have to happen.”

She ticked off reasons why people have accidents at work. Fatigue. Complacency. Lack of training. Losing focus. Indifference. Attitude. Anger. Accidents are usually preventable, Repp said.

“About 12 people a day died in work-related accidents,” she said, citing U.S. statistics. “Even one is unacceptable.”

Michael Wood, administrator of the Oregon Occupational Safety & Health Administration, had said something similar when he spoke.

“No one should give up their health. No one should give up their physical capacity,” Wood said. “Certainly, no one should give up their life as part of earning a paycheck.”

Repp has carved out a good life, despite the challenges of having only one arm. She had once planned on becoming a dentist and had been training to be a pilot, but became a science teacher and motivational speaker instead. She runs marathons and has a black belt in martial arts. She carried the Olympic torch in 2002 on its way to the Salt Lake City games.

No regrets, she said.

“I got something not everyone gets — a second chance,” Repp said. “Every single day, I have a very visible reminder to live my life with purpose.”

She urged people to stay focused and consider potential dangers at work, warning, “The day that changes your life forever starts out like any other.”

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Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or call 541-966-0810.

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