Following life changing injuries as a consequence of a fall from height, Jason Anker is now devoting his time to promoting health and safety issues. Professional Builder’s Lee Jones talks to the former tradesman about his accident and its devastating aftermath.
The split-second decisions that we make on site can send shock waves through the lives of individuals and their families for ever more. That’s the lesson that Jason Anker, MBE wants to deliver to the audiences of site managers and workers that listen to his talks. When he recounts the shattering impact of his own experiences from his wheelchair, Jason transcends the statistics, and is the living embodiment of the consequences of a site accident.
Working for his father-in-law’s firm on a flat roof repair, January 3rd 1993 was in many ways a day like any other for Jason, but it was one that would change the Nottinghamshire tradesman’s life forever. “It was a cold, foggy afternoon and our first job following the Christmas break,” he recalls. “The client was pleading with us to fix a leak just as soon as we could, we only had a couple of hours of light left, we were tired and it was unplanned work – all the warning signs were there. Like a lot of people who’ve suffered accidents at work I knew that the way we were working at times was dangerous but I didn’t feel I could speak out. We were a small firm trying to keep going in the middle of a recession so the safety aspect just wasn’t a priority.”
The ladder Jason and hi co-worker were using was untied and unsupported, and his fall would leave him paralysed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. “There is a perception that – because of the extent of my injuries – that I must have hit the ground from a considerable distance, but it was actually only ten feet, and that’s one of the crucial points that I make in my talks. It surprises many people but it is living proof that working at height at any level is inherently dangerous and there’s no room for complacency.”
The initial prognosis Jason was given was a condition called spinal shock, but a further CT scan revealed irreparable damage. Following back surgery he still believed he’d walk again, but it was not to be. “Once I had surgery, I just couldn’t let go of the hope that I’d get back to normal because that’s what you see in the movies – you work hard and you get back on your feet – but it was never going to be possible. When that realisation dawned on me it was something that I really I couldn’t come to terms with.”
By his own admission, Jason struggled to cope with the trauma of living with a disability, and that would inevitably impact on loved ones. “It’s not just about losing the use of your legs because I was also suffering from double incontinence, as well as impotence,” he confesses. “Add to that the toll it takes on your dignity, a reduced life expectancy, and the pressures on family life and the experience is overwhelming. As a result, shortly after coming out of hospital, and just a few months after the accident, my marriage failed.”
In order to blot out the physical and emotionally pain Jason turned to drink and drugs, and substance abuse as a coping mechanism would be the pattern of his existence for years to come. “I actually ended up on life support following an overdose, and my parents were told by the medical staff that there was no hope for me and that they needed to consider turning the machine off. Thankfully they didn’t, and it was the start of my recovery.”
After a lengthy rehabilitation process Jason discovered disabled water skiing but was still drinking quite heavily. To add to his sense of injury, sixteen years after the incident – and following a protracted legal dispute – in order to be sure he would receive any kind of compensation at all he was advised to settle out of court, and received just £408,000 as a result.
What turned Jason’s life around completely was the opportunity to tell his story to others and hopefully help prevent accidents on site. “I met a guy called Dan Terry in 2008 who immediately recognised that recounting the effect that the choice I made that freezing January day in 1993 would have in the years that followed would be a powerful message to site workers.”
“I call it the five second moment – if you believe a working practice on site is dangerous then give yourself a few moments to consider the effect of an accident not just on you but those around you, because it will destroy multiple lives. What I want to do is empower people to say, ‘I’m not doing that because it’s not safe.’ If you lose your job as a consequence then put it on your CV and make sure you tell prospective employers exactly why you left that company because it’s something that should be applauded.”
“From an employer’s perspective there is a positive aspect to health and safety that too many smaller firms in particular just don’t recognise. It’s invariably more productive to use scaffolding than operating from ladders, for example, and you also have to factor in that a happy workforce will always be a more industrious one – give people the right equipment and they’re bound to feel more valued in their employment.”
“The consequences of my accident will never go away,” he concludes, “and there are daily reminders. I’ve got grandchildren now but I’ll never able to run after them or play football with them and that will always hurt.”
To watch the film ‘Proud2bsafe’ that illustrates the effects of Jason’s accident on himself and his family visit https://youtu.be/bzadIyKspc4
Abbi’s Story is a film by The Ladder Association and can viewed at https://youtu.be/cwhrMUEkdpo