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SF Special: Armed Advocate for Farm Safety

A grain dryer accident cost Jack Maloney his left arm nearly 10 years ago. Here’s how it happened, and how a $1.50 clip on a lockout-tagout system could have prevented it.

Many times – maybe 999,999 out of a million – you dodge life-and-limb situations like the one Jack Maloney was mired in nearly 10 years ago. You grab a rung that breaks your backward fall from a combine ladder. An errant shoelace misses a power takeoff by ¼ inch. A glance upward after looking at a phone text in your semi jars you into barely missing a late-dusk walker striding down a country road.

Then again, luck sometimes takes a vacation. That’s why Jack – now minus his left arm – is asking you to think and rethink farm safety by sharing his story.

It all began on November 6, 2006, a day just like any other during a busy harvest season.

“I was in the boot of a hopper tank that had an auger that fed grain to the dryer,” says the Brownsburg, Indiana, farmer. “Since we were changing crops from soybeans to corn, I was on my knees with my left hand inside the boot. I was cleaning out junk from the bottom of the boot so it wouldn’t contaminate the next crop.”

Meanwhile, Maloney’s son, Peter, and employee Tom Noyes were busily cleaning the grain elevator that ferried dry corn away from the dryer.

The drying system’s master control panel automatically tied the two components of the drying system together.

“When they were done cleaning their part, they decided to run everything out from the elevator’s buckets while the boot was still open. They didn’t know I still was cleaning out the auger,” says Jack.

When his employee hit the switch, the auger in the hopper tank turned on, with Jack Maloney’s left arm in it.

His shrieking screams prompted Peter and Noyes to quickly turn off the switch.

“I still don’t know how they turned it off so fast,” says Jack. “But I knew my left arm was immediately gone. My arm was stuck clear up to the shoulder in a little 8-inch hole.”

Jack then told Peter to climb onto the top of the dryer, open the shield and then turn the auger backwards.

He got up there and said, “Dad, I don’t know which way to go.’ I told him to move it ever so slightly.”

After Peter moved it a fraction of an inch, Jack immediately cried, “Wrong way!”

“To this day, I swear all he had to do was lay his hand on that auger (for Jack to feel its direction), because all my nerves were inside that auger,” says Jack.

Peter then slowly turned the auger the other direction. “I could feel things give up and I finally fell out on my back,” he says. “I didn’t look at my arm, because I knew it was gone, and I didn’t want to lose consciousness.”

On the ground, Jack then asked Peter to call 911 on his cell phone and use Jack’s cell phone to call his mother, Rita.

“I told him to get my belt off my pants and wrap it around my injured arm,” says Jack. “It was a tourniquet to keep the blood flow down.”

Meet Me at the Hospital

Rita Maloney was at her workplace that morning, studying coursework that was part of her MBA program when Peter called.

“Peter told me to meet at the hospital. He wouldn’t tell me anything else. My daughter (Megan Farrell) was coming my way anyway, so she picked me up and we went to the emergency room.

 “Naturally, I was a nervous wreck,” she says.

They raced into the hospital and met Jack, who was being prepped for surgery. 

“The trauma doctor (Dr. Tim Weber) told us that he was planning to remove Jack’s entire arm,” says Rita. “If not, he said amputee victims tend to lose the remainder of the arm over time.”

Rita disagreed.

“I knew there were still some parts of his upper arm still there,” she says. “So I looked at the doctor and said, ‘No, let’s try and save all that is left.’ He looked at me and said, ‘I will do the best I can.’”

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He did. “I had a saint of a surgeon,” says Jack. “My arm was like a splintered 2-by-4. But my elbow joint was in between the flightings, so it didn’t get torn up. He put a bar in the arm and screwed it all together and gave me an elbow.”

This maneuver paid future dividends. “Having an elbow with a prosthetic arm is huge,” says Jack. “If I didn’t have that much of an elbow, I would not wear a prosthetic.” 

Meanwhile, friends of the Maloneys arrived at the hospital.  

“By the time he came out of surgery, there were around 15 of us in the waiting room,” recalls Rita. “We came out and migrated to him (Dr. Weber), following him like ducklings. He said, ‘Wow, I feel like I am in a Verizon commercial.’ (A popular 2006 television ad clip showed dozens of people behind a Verizon customer.) We all cheered when he told us he was able to put the arm together just below the elbow.”

Recovery Road

Successful surgery was just the beginning, though. “He got sick on one of the first medicines he had,” says daughter Megan, who was a nursing student at the time. 

He also took massive amounts of painkillers. “They gave me some of the most potent Vicodin they had,” recalls Jack.

A major concern was the chance of a hospital-borne infection. So, six days after his accident, Jack went back to his home and did what any farmer wants to do at harvest: farm.

He had help. Five combines and 19 semis from neighbors and agribusinesses were parked outside the corn field that remained to be harvest.

 “One company took half of the corn and another took the other half and neither charged drying fees,” adds Jack. “My crop insurance company even brought lunch two days.”  

Still, difficult days remained.

More shoulder surgery was needed, followed by fitting his prosthetic arm, physical therapy, and painkilling drugs. Learning to live with a prosthetic also had challenges, such as one that happened during harvest in 2011 while servicing a combine.

“I went to service the air filter, slipped and fell, and got the prosthetic hook caught on the ladder rung,” he says. Left dangling on his tiptoes until his employees arrived, he cracked his shoulder in two places.

The pain of losing an arm wasn’t just physical, either.

“I went through anger, pity, every emotion you could have,” Jack says. He especially did not want Noyes to take the blame for the accident.

“We were both on everyone’s prayer list, and everyone supported him, too,” says Jack. “I tried to get through to him that it wasn’t his fault. I should have been proactive. This happened because I got complacent. I wasn’t paying attention to my employees.”

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The $1.50 Fix

“There’s an easy fix to these grain centers that we have these days,” says Maloney

Lockout-tagout systems that are common on commercial grain handling systems can work on farm systems, too. He says a $1.50 clip would have prevented the accident. It would have fit on his system’s main shutoff button on the low-voltage side of the control panel.

Here’s how these systems work: When operator A locks his or her padlock and takes the key, operator B is locked out of the system. The grain drying system will not operate independently until each person who attached a padlock removes his or her key. This prevents anyone from starting up an auger or fan without knowing someone else is around. This would have prevented the auger that caught Jack’s arm that morning in November 2006 from firing up.

Can’t isn’t an Option

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During tough times, velvet in the most innocuous forms often emerged to soothe sandpaper-like difficulties.

“We had a 5-year-old dog at the time who just knew I was not feeling well,” says Jack. “He would come and sit beside me in the bedroom.”

“Quite frankly, I had to really talk up Jack,” says Rita. “He is really a safe farmer. He was upset and embarrassed this happened to him. I explained to him, ‘That is why they are called accidents. There was a second in your life that you didn’t think straight.’”

He also kept in mind childhood lessons that Charles Lawson taught him. A southern U.S. Army veteran, his hard work and devotion as one of his father’s farm employees rubbed off on a young Jack.

 “He also taught me there is no such word as ‘can’t.’ He said if a machinery part went on, it would come off! So, his attitude rubbed off on me.”

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This immediately occurred. “When we were leaving the hospital, I was bringing everything out to the car,” says Rita. “I told him I would come back and help him tie his shoes. When I came back, he was all dressed, with shoes tied and on tight.”

“You figure things out yourself,” says Jack.

Other tasks, though, were now out of his physical realm.

“One task that is really difficult for him is fine wiring, because he really can’t use his prosthetic to hold wire,” says Rita. “He is still good at welding and uses other equipment, such as a forklift, to lift and hold things.”

Also aiding him are veteran employees Brian Kincaid and Noyes. 

“You couldn’t find anyone better to work for,” says Kincaid.

Says Noyes: “He has always been fair to us and good to work for.”

Still, asking for help has been hard for Jack.

“I have always been a doer,” he says. “I can still do most everything, but I am not as quick as I used to be. That is frustrating for me, at best. Unfortunately, my wife gets the blunt of my frustrations. It is hard for her. Sometimes I come in at night madder than a hornet, dropping things and making a lot of noise. She will ask me, ‘What happened today?’ and then she does a good job of defusing it.”

So does humor. Maloney is quick to joke about needing a hand, or calling an employee his left-hand man. Sometimes, too, just routine outings contain humorous episodes.

“One year, when I was walking down a crowded aisle at the National Farm Machinery Show, I felt a bump on my prosthetic arm. I noticed a kid rubbing his head when I looked back because he had hit it. At least he wasn’t crying,” deadpans Maloney.

Speaking for agricultural groups and companies and schools has also been cathartic for Maloney. 

“I have been active with the Bunge Corporation when they do a special day for kids from kindergarten through fifth grade in Morristown (Indiana). I tell them about safety, I tell them about my accident, and tell them what I do to keep this from happening again. We have fun, having shoelace-tying contests with the students that I always win,” he jests. “One year, we were there and one youngster who had been there the year before was telling the other kids before the contest, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it – he’s going to beat you.’”

He also stresses to the kids and farming community that the lockout-tagout system is an easy fix for preventing accidents like his.

“It is so easy to do,” he says. “I am going to live with this the rest of my life just because of not spending $1.50 and being just a little more safety conscious.”

Community is Key

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“There is a bucket list of things I like to do that just won’t happen,” says Jack. “I was always a sportsman. I liked to fish, I liked to play golf, and I can’t do that anymore. The thing I miss most is the sense of touch. I feel out of balance.”

Conversely, he’s still around for his family. Besides wife Rita, son Peter and daughter Megan, he also has a son, Kevin, and two grandchildren.  On the farming side, he’s been active in pioneering the use of cover crops and serving as a testing ground for several agricultural companies. He still operates a thriving sweet corn operation for the neighborhood. 

More than anything, he’s been a living testament of perseverance and faithfulness to others.

“He is an inspiration and lives his life in such a Christian way,” says Ron Chamberlain, chief agronomist and director of Gypsoil division research. “He is one of the most giving people I know.”

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“I didn’t know what his demeanor would be (after the accident),” says Megan. “He was incredibly positive and you know, he wasn’t going to let it get him down. He still doesn’t say he has a disability to this day. For anyone recovering from such an injury, a positive outlook is definitely the one thing that will keep you going.”

Jack says he hasn’t been able to do it alone.  “Without the community and my close family, this would have been hard,” he says. 

Ten years later, it’s that importance of community that also sticks with Megan.

“The farming community is a remarkable community,” she says.

“The outpouring of help we got from farmers in the state, in the Midwest, from John Deere, Caterpillar, Co-Alliance, was unreal. I can still see the five combines and 19 semis parked outside the field after he got out of the hospital,” she adds. “It still gives me chills to this day.”

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