“That’s how it’s always been done”
Behind the success of a company are the people who work there. Protecting the health and safety of our employees has a long tradition at thyssenkrupp. How important is it to constantly question tried-and-tested methods? Robin Kauß, an industrial mechanic at thyssenkrupp Steel in Duisburg, tells us about this from his own personal experience. In 2018, he lost his right leg in an accident at work.
Were you to pass Robin Kauß on the street, you would never guess that this lively young man with a swift stride was in fact missing one of his legs. In 2018, his life changed in an instant due to a terrible accident at the workplace.
A normal day at work
February 17th, 2018 is a sunny, cold Saturday. Robin Kauß has a midday shift. He usually takes the bus and train to get to the thyssenkrupp steel plant in Duisburg from his hometown of Herne, Germany. On the train, he can read or plan the next vacation with his girlfriend. The year before, they traveled to Florida. For this summer vacation, they are planning to visit the U.S. once more – this time to see Las Vegas.
"It was just a normal shift," recalls Robin. His workstation is at the specimen shear. There, pieces are cut from the sheets for quality testing. Just after four o’clock, he learns from a colleague that they have to "build the knives" today. This is not unusual but a routine job that is done umpteen times a month in Robin's work area – usually in pairs. Everyone knows the procedure. Robin knows what to do. After all, he is no beginner. He completed his training already in 2014.
1000 times nothing happened
"Building knives", looks like this: There is a block of two knives with a wedge between them. First, the lower knife is taken out, then the knife wedge, which regulates the width of the knife. The knife wedge is almost four meters long and weighs around 630 kilograms. It is removed by crane and placed on the steel walls at the top of the stairs. There it is at a good working height. When Robin learned the knife building for the first time, he wondered, "Why do you do it like that?" Back then, the older colleagues' answered: "We've always done it that way." Therefore, Robin does it the same way. Also this Saturday.
630 kilos of steel in free fall
On February 17th 2018, Robin Kauß is alone with the knife wedge. The plant is understaffed that day. He is concentrated and checks that the knife wedge is standing securely before unhooking it from the crane. Then he signals to his colleague to remove the crane. At that moment, the steel wedge moves. To this day, no one knows why. From a height of 1.20 meters, the knife wedge falls. Robin has no chance to pull his right leg away in time. His foot is crushed by 630 kilos of steel.
"In the first moment it was a very strong pain. Then it felt more like dipping your foot in hot water and not taking it out, like a burning sensation," he recalls. Robin is fully conscious. He instructs his colleague to bring him the cell phone from his backpack. He knows the procedure: get rescue, notify relatives. Robin has been an active member of the Herne Volunteer Fire Department for more than ten years. Immediately, the rescue service is alerted. "At first, we thought it was a hernia," says shift coordinator Steinhoff. The emergency doctor lands a few minutes later by helicopter. Robin is rushed to the BG hospital. In the operating room, the doctors determine that his front foot can no longer be saved; it is removed immediately. Robin will lose his right foot.
When Robin wakes up in the hospital on the evening of this Saturday, his mother does not know about the severity of his injury. The ambulance service and emergency doctor decide which hospital is suitable only en route, and are bound to confidentiality. Neither the company nor the control center can give Robin’s mother any information on his whereabouts. She stays up all night and calls Robin's sisters to comfort her.
On Sunday morning, they call all clinics in Duisburg. Finally, they receive the right address and sets off for the BG clinic. Both think that Robin has broken his foot. When his mother is standing in front of the bed, Robin tells her straight out what's really going on: "I'm missing half my foot." She is stunned. It takes another whole day for her to grasp the extent of the serious accident.
Two months in hospital
Robin Kauß has to stay in the hospital until the end of April and is given strong painkillers. His room neighbors change often. In total, he gets to know 25 other patients. Many of them are worse off than he is. Four weeks after the accident, the doctors give him a choice: His heel could be rebuilt with skin and muscle tissue from his thigh, but with a risk of affecting the entire right leg. The alternative: A full amputation, followed by a prosthesis. Robin opts for the amputation. With the prosthesis, he thinks, the chance is higher that he will be able to put full weight on his leg again later.
Robin is lucky, his hopes are fulfilled. However, it will be a long way before that. Only when the tissue on the stump has healed well can a prosthesis be fitted. After eight weeks, Robin Kauß is finally allowed to leave the clinic. Robin can only move in a wheelchair and on crutches. He reads a lot and spends a lot of time at the console. He forgoes psychological care. "I don't cry over things that can't be changed," he says.
Rehab and reintegration
There are days at home when time passes very slowly. It's not until a month and a half after his discharge that rehab begins. A prosthesis is fitted and Robin has to learn to move with it day by day. At first, he can only wear the prosthesis for two to three hours. He can't go outside without help. The rehab is exhausting, especially because of the heat, and lasts three months. Almost every day his girlfriend comes to visit. She no longer has any problems seeing the stump of his leg. It will be weeks before Robin can wear the prosthesis all day long. During this time, he loses almost 30 kilos.
Looking back, Robin never regretted the decision to opt for the prosthesis. Just under a year after the accident, in February 2019, Robin Kauß begins reintegration. He needs custom-made work pants and work shoes. Because of his long commute, Robin starts with a four-hour workday. Eight weeks later, he is back to working normal eight-hour shifts. But Robin does not return to his former job. He now works at the ultrasonic system. There, the thicknesses of the steel are measured in the quality inspection. Nevertheless, he often passes the accident site. Flashbacks, those moments when the situation of the accident is suddenly relived and panic sets in are not an issue. "No, I have no problem with that," Robin says reassuring. And if something seems dangerous to him now? "Then I make sure it's not dangerous!"
The future with prosthesis
Today, Robin Kauß gets to work by bus and train, as he did in the past. Now, it takes him a few minutes longer to walk to the station. In winter, when it is slippery, he is very careful. He cannot walk fast or even run with the prosthesis. For that, a separate sports prosthesis would have to be made. In the volunteer fire department, he can no longer go out on active missions. However, he is now the first member of the so-called supply squad. He stays in the fire station and makes sure that food and drinks are available after the mission.
If all goes well, Robin Kauß also wants to get his driver's license soon. "That's possible, on automatic and with a left-hand throttle," he knows. Even air travel is no problem with the prosthesis, so he plans to catch up on the vacation to Las Vegas with his girlfriend.
Consequences for occupational safety
After Robin's accident, an intensive investigation was carried out at thyssenkrupp Steel to determine how it could have happened. The knife-making processes were since changed completely. Work instructions were written and a fixture was specially made and installed, on which the knife wedge can be placed. It ensures that the knife wedge can no longer tip over and that an accident like the one Robin Kauß suffered can never happen again.
If you are interested in occupational safety and health, visit our OSH website and find out how you can get involved in improving the safety at your workplace or who to contact in case of emergency.