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Plant employee lucky to be alive

Company's version of events differs from eyewitness

Kiefer Lynxleg rests in a hospital bed after undergoing surgeries on his right arm.

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Kiefer Lynxleg rests in a hospital bed after undergoing surgeries on his right arm. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

The worst part about losing part of his right arm in a horrific industrial accident last week is how it keeps playing over and over in his mind, Kiefer Lynxleg says from his hospital bed where he is recovering from two major surgeries.

It was the first day of operations at the long-delayed Plains Industrial Hemp Processing plant in Gilbert Plains and Lynxleg, 21, was working on a machine known as a hemp grinder.

Lynxleg said the machine he was assigned that day was the only machine in the plant without a guardrail.

HERE'S what's at stake at the Plains Industrial Hemp Processing plant in Gilbert Plains:

Even before last week's workplace accident, the roughly $12-million plant, built to employ about 30 people, had a rocky road to its opening.

The plant is owned by Chinese businessman Robert Jin, whose family runs a large hemp textile plant in China. They looked overseas for new hemp sources and it wasn't long before Jin found hemp was a hot commodity on the Canadian Prairies.

And hemp is hot.

There's more acreage contracted for 2014 from hemp farmers than was planted across the Prairies in 2013, itself a record year for industrial hemp production. The Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance projects acreage will soar to 100,000 acres by 2015 and 250,000 by 2018. As a cash crop, hemp has few rivals: Net returns to farmers are in the range of $150 to $360 an acre and hemp fibre prices are in the range of $100 a tonne.

The Harper government put up $6 million in loans for Jin's project in its Economic Action Plan.

But there have been problems.

Delays in opening Jin's Plains Industrial Hemp Processing plant -- it was supposed to open a couple years ago -- created skeptics, especially with so much government funding involved.

It's also the second attempt to process hemp in Manitoba under the Harper government's action plan. The first was a disaster. The $6 million the feds loaned to a company in Waskada called Farm Genesis simply vanished. The plant operated for a single month. A federal government source admitted the business plan of Farm Genesis was a joke and the money should never have been approved.

This time, Jin put up his own money, too. He spent more than $4 million. The province chipped in $500,000 and the RM of Gilbert Plains another $400,000 for land, site preparation and a road.

Delays were related to building-code issues and equipment, shipped in from China, that had to meet Canadian industry standards. In one instance last fall, workers told their families they were asked to paint over the Chinese characters on the equipment because no one in the Canadian workforce could understand instructions in Mandarin.

The primary purpose of the new facility is to process hemp fibre for manufacturing clothes in China. But it also makes hemp-based products such as home insulation, absorbent for cleaning up oil spills from home garages to industrial accidents, pellets for wood stoves and bedding for pets and horses.


-- Alexandra Paul

"I tried to stop the machine from being clogged. But it was just too late. My fingers were wrapped up inside (it). The thing just picked me up like a rag doll," Lynxleg said from his hospital bed in Winnipeg.

Had Lynxleg not been wearing a hard hat, he's convinced the machine would have taken his neck and head, too.

"The only thing that saved me from going unconscious is my helmet. The helmet helped me from hitting my temple on the side of it. I was getting sucked in from the side. My head hit the side of the machine but my helmet stopped it," he said.

He was sucked up to his shoulder in seconds.

'I tried to stop the machine from being clogged. But it was just too late. My fingers were wrapped up inside (it). The thing just picked me up like a rag doll' -- Kiefer Lynxleg, 21

"I could hear everything that was happening around me. (A buddy) yelled my name. He ran around the side of my machine and turned it off."

Lynxleg said he recalled one worker bracing his feet, which at that point were swinging off the floor. It worked. The pressure pulling him in meant he couldn't breathe, he said.

Another worker dialed 911 and three workers took the machine apart as he screamed in pain.

"He kept yelling at us to get the machine off him... (The machine) is like a bunch of gears," said Ernest Brass, one of the workers there. "We had to take the bolts off, but the gears were heavy, about 100 pounds each, and we had to take five or six of them off him," Brass said.

Lynxleg stayed conscious until emergency workers arrived minutes later. He was rushed to Dauphin Hospital and immediately medevaced to Health Sciences Centre.

"By the time they got everything off of me, ah, I seen my machine, it was full of blood. Full of blood. My blood.

"I thought I was gone," Lynxleg said from his bed at Health Sciences Centre.

Workplace Safety and Health is investigating the accident, which occurred Feb. 2.

Provincial officials released few details about the incident, other than it was serious and the investigation is continuing.

"I can confirm that a Workplace Safety and Health investigation into the recent accident is ongoing," a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The company's version of events is at odds with eyewitness reports of the accident.

Lynxleg and other workers had worked at the plant last fall and were familiar with the equipment.

This time, Lynxleg said it slipped his mind that the plant owner had warned him he was working on a new machine and the safety rail was absent. "There was no guardrail. He told us that face to face. (Plant owner) Robert (Jin) told us that... So, I said 'OK.' "

However, Jin's business assistant, Fred Embryk, contradicted Lynxleg's version of events.

Embryk insisted the hemp grinder automatically shut off as soon as Lynxleg's arm was caught and that it had been equipped with a safety rail.

Embryk said he believed the accident was the result of the worker's own negligence.

"Workplace safety made their report," Embryk said in an interview late last week. "The plant is ready to function."

The owner shut the plant down for a few days last week to make repairs on the machine but the plant was due to reopen this week, he said.

"Robert (Jin) is very, very upset. He's still shook up," Embryk said.

A former mayor of Grandview, a town 15 kilometres west of Gilbert Plains, Embryk said there's a lot riding on the plant. It has the support of area municipalities and the region's major hemp farmers.

However, as of Tuesday, the other workers had yet to decide to return to work at the plant.

And Lynxleg's parents and extended family have come to Winnipeg from their home on Tootinowaziibeeng, the First Nation where Lynxleg and three other workers were recruited. They're concerned about worker safety at the plant.

"It's been a shock to all the family," his grandmother, Jeanette Ironstand, said. "This is about workplace safety standards... Kiefer never did anything to anyone," she said. .

After two surgeries, Lynxleg has lost his right arm to the elbow. Surgeons will decide this week whether to amputate the rest of his arm.

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