Updated: May 27
Greg Toombs enjoyed his life and his work - but his injury would transform everything
Hundreds of BC workers are killed on the job each year, and hundreds more are left permanently disabled. Many find themselves caught in a struggle that leaves them physically, emotionally, and financially exhausted -- wondering if the system that is supposed to help them is instead is working against them.
The story of Greg Toombs is the first to be told in our Injured Worker Chronicles series. If you're an injured worker and want to share your experience, send an email to Spencer van Vloten at email@example.com
The Day Everything Changed
My name is Greg Toombs, and this is my story.
I used to be a worker -- a countertop installer and plumber for Integrity Countertops. I took great pride in my craft, ensuring that nothing ever got damaged or went missing on a job I did. I loved my work and my life, and was excited for the future.
But on February 23, 2010, that changed forever.
On that day I was required to install a kitchen and a bathroom countertop weighing nearly 200 pounds in a 4th floor suite within a high-rise.
I carried the 200 pound countertop on my own through a maze of 4 x 30' long glass hallways, each with a locked door at the end requiring the countertop to be rotated from end to end to get through each of the doorways.
I got to the freight elevator but couldn't get the countertop in. So I returned back to my van carrying it back myself returning through the maze in reverse. They had hired another plumber and he was arriving at 1pm.
The customer was in a panic for me to get this countertop into the suite. So foolishly I made this effort a SECOND TIME to carry the countertop through the long maze again. I tried with all my might, giving everything I had to get it into the freight elevator without damaging the large countertop. Once again failing and having to get this piece back to the truck.
Help arrived late and he helped me carry the countertop up 4 flights of stairs into its destination. I carried it all the way back up again and found a way to fit it into the suite. From there, I had to lift a 120-pound sink several times to get it in place in the countertop.
During the installation of the smaller bathroom vanity I got stuck and heard something in my neck tearing as I tried to free myself. Once I was out I knew then and there that something was not right. Something was definitely wrong.
Once I was out I knew then and there that something was not right. Something was definitely wrong.
The effort left me in tremendous pain throughout my body and I could hardly stand. Every muscle ached. Despite this, my boss forced me to complete another job straight after, where I was in so much agony that I had to sit on the ground every chance I could as I attempted, and completed the installation or I would not get paid for it
At this point I was a non-union worker. I did not have the protection of a collective agreement or a union rep who would have taken my side.
For non-union workers, if you decline work because you feel it to be unsafe, you find yourself unemployed. I couldn’t afford to lose this job.
For non-union workers, if you decline work because you feel it to be unsafe, you find yourself unemployed
After working on the 2nd job, I headed right to a doctor, went home, and spent the next week in bed. I'd hurt my back and neck so badly it was even affecting my ability to use the washroom.
Suffering, Botched Surgery, And Seizures
I soon began occupational therapy to treat the injuries, and during those 12 days I had to go to emergency 3 times with intolerable, unmanageable pain. Any motion caused searing pain; it was pain upon pain on top of more pain.
Over the next few weeks I worked with a physiotherapist who documented the damage I'd suffered to my spine. Rather than following his advice that I needed further treatment, my case manager never talked with him about the issue, and instead left him a message saying the treatment was terminated.
Given that my treatment with my physiotherapist had been cut off and I still experienced great pain, I was referred for neck surgery, but that just made things go from bad to worse.
Greg following surgery
After I returned home from surgery I awoke with no sensation in my left arm, absolutely none. Within a week after surgery an ear infection also developed, with a large cyst developing on my left ear lobe from the infection - the surgeon who removed it said he'd never seen anything like that in his 25 years on the job.
I'd thought things were bad and had counted on this surgery to give me another chance at a productive life, but I was left even worse off. I also began to get seizures after the surgery, which I had never experienced previously, and my health was unravelling when it was supposed to be improving.
WorkSafe BC: Working Against Workers
In order for me to get any support throughout this mess, WorkSafe BC forced me to complete several different physical assessments with doctors they’d contracted.
One of the challenges for workers going through these assessments is that if you refuse to do a certain exercise or move your body in a certain way because it's too painful, they can label you as “uncooperative”, which can diminish credibility for your case.
This pressures the patient to do more than they ought to do – you don’t feel free to speak honestly about your limits.
One of the challenges is that if you refuse to do a certain exercise because it's too painful, they can label you as “uncooperative”
You don’t want to refuse to participate and be misjudged, but that means you can actually re-injure yourself. In my experience, WorkSafe BC frequently tried to get me to do things that went beyond my physical capabilities and I felt the results.
This happened in several different assessments. At one of them, after I was unable to turn any further, the doctor forced my head hard to my right side to get the reading they wanted, which caused sharp, severe pain.
At another, they put on my medical file that I could go up and down stairs carrying 45-lbs for a few hours a day without ever testing to see if that were so. It absolutely wasn’t the case – I couldn’t be tested for this because I was unable to do it.
The assessments also tended to be very long, over several hours in some cases, and with my physical condition left me barely able to move after. Everything was weighted against me, the worker, and my improvement.
I was also suspicious that WorkSafe BC was manipulating the evidence, by excluding and deleting important medical information in my file that could help me with my claim.
One of the most frustrating, upsetting, and disheartening parts of this was having to work with a vindictive case manager. She always assumed the worst, and seemed bent on disproving everything I said so that WorkSafe BC wouldn't have to provide support.
WorkSafe BC's headquarters in Richmond
She was also not efficient with tracking important details that were essential to the file and to my claim. When I told her I had switched doctors, she failed to record this in my file, and also refused to include new medical information from my doctor and physiotherapist that highlighted the severity of my injury.
This is shown by the following:
At the request of WorkSafe BC I had attended a private clinic of their choosing for an MRI. The result stated “Moderately Severe Narrowing of L4”.
This was in contradiction to the CT scan conducted previously which had indicated “Severe Narrowing L4”, as well as a subsequent scan at VGH which indicated the same. Both of these suggested the possibility of a major permanent injury, but WorkSafe BC ignored that evidence and only acknowledged the scan which minimized my injury.
After receiving notification from WorkSafe BC regarding what they were willing to cover, which was virtually nothing, I was denied full access to my medical records. In a doctor’s appointment I asked to see the MRI results, and we noted that parts of the report were greyed out, meaning that I wasn’t given full disclosure on what the tests on my body revealed.
Left To Freeze
Despite an abundance of evidence about the severity of my injuries and inability to work, WorkSafe BC provided meagre support and then cut it off.
To make a stand against a system working against me, I hired a lawyer and spent $20,000 in legal bills. At this point I was living on $609 per month through welfare, so hiring a lawyer created financial duress, but I needed to fight back.
Even though my benefits were eventually increased as a result of this action, they were clawed back again because I was now on provincial disability, and during those years you weren't allowed to receive additional money.
For the next 6 years I lived on approximately $900 per month. In 2016, I was approved for CPP disability. I was also able to receive the $478 monthly that had been previously awarded in 2011 but had been clawed back. That gave me a monthly income of approximately $1500 and I continue to receive this today.
Getting by with an income below the poverty line is tough, to say the least. One of the times I feel it the most is in the winter. I cannot afford heating in my mobile home, and thus spend months at a time shivering in the freezing cold.
No One Deserves This
My life over the last 11 years has been, for lack of a better word, hell.
I live in poverty.
I am in non-stop pain throughout my body. My legs are barely strong enough for me to walk without stumbling, and I can only handle an hour or 2 of activity on a good day.
But worst of all has been the psychological pain. I’ve struggled tremendously with anger, depression, and panic attacks. I feel hopeless about the future and struggle to trust anyone. And some days it’s so bad that I question whether life is worth continuing if this is how it’s going to be.
I’m tired of it all. But I hope by speaking out I can make people aware of how workers disabled on the job are being treated, and help bring about changes to a system that is leaving people physically and mentally traumatized.
If I can help even 1 person by sharing this, it's been worth it.
To read more details about Greg's story, click here
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!