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When a $60 part becomes a $100K bill

Progressive Dairy Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 22 October 2019
break air chamber

Earl Creech, Utah State University extension agronomist, recently related a story you need to hear. I’ll let him tell it in his own words:

When I returned to Utah, I bought some farm ground next to the farm where my parents have a small dairy. My wife and I felt farming was a great way to raise kids, and tractor time can be great therapy, and as an agronomist, it gives me a certain “street cred” when I’m working with producers, as I too run an operation.

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Earlier this year in May, the day started like any other day. We had a 10-wheel dump truck that we used as a grain truck, and the air brake system wasn’t functioning properly and wouldn’t pass inspection, so my dad and I decided to look that over and see if we couldn’t get the problem fixed. My dad is a more experienced mechanic, and I wouldn’t describe myself that way, but I know my way around a wrench. We investigated and felt the air leak was likely coming from the air brake chamber. Neither of us knew a whole lot about air brake systems specifically, but we bled the air out of the system and thought that would make it safe to work on it.

The clamshell cover was held with a clamp that was bolted with a couple of 9/16-inch bolts, and I climbed under the truck and started loosening the bolts. After loosening them a bit, all of a sudden, the brake chamber exploded. It stunned me. I don’t think I was concussed, but I wasn’t sure what had happened. My dad was nearby and pulled me out from under the truck.

Unbeknownst to me, even with the air bled out, inside those cannisters is a giant spring designed to stop a large truck in the event the brake system loses air pressure. This spring’s coil is about as big around as my thumb and when expanded is about the size of a football. The spring is under enormous tension – it takes about 2,000 pounds of pressure to compress the spring from its football length down to about 2 inches, which is how it sits inside the cannister. When I loosened those bolts on the clamp holding the chamber together, the lid and spring blew apart, hitting me in the face.

After the fact, I learned these are so dangerous that the newer models aren’t made to come apart at all, and when they fail, you’re supposed to just take the whole cannister off and replace it with a new one. It turns out that’s about a $60 part.

When my dad pulled me out from under the truck, he could tell I needed medical assistance, so he put me on the farm ambulance (which we all know is the four-wheeler) and ran me down to my wife to have her take me to the hospital.

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We got to the emergency room, and I must not have looked pained enough, even though I was bleeding all over the place, as the staff took other folks back to the exam rooms who only seemed to have a cough or sprained hair. (I must not have looked pathetic enough; I’ll work on that for next time).

Finally, we met with the doctor and had X-rays. When the brake chamber hit my face, it struck my chin at an angle, splitting the bone vertically and shoving my jaw toward my ear, breaking the jaw joint. These things always seem to happen on a Saturday afternoon, so it was about 8 o’clock that night before they finally took me in for an emergency four-and-a-half-hour surgery to put a metal plate across my chin to hold it together (requiring nine screws). They looked at the broken jaw joint but couldn’t figure out how to fix it. The piece that had broken was so small they couldn’t put a screw on it, so they left it broken and wired my mouth shut, hoping it would just decide to heal if it wasn’t moved.

Having your jaw wired shut isn’t much fun. I dropped 10 pounds pretty quickly, having to strain all liquids through my teeth. Now think about that for a minute – all food wasn’t only pureed, it was also strained so it doesn’t plug your teeth. Now picture that for six weeks. Let me put it this way: Even an M&M sitting in a dish, no matter how badly you want it, isn’t going in your mouth. And no matter how exciting the first few milkshakes are, you get tired of sweets, so you learn quickly how to blend and puree and strain nearly everything on the planet. (One favorite was a hamburger – you take the bun, patty, pickles and everything else and put it in the blender with some beef broth and blend, blend, blend. It probably sounds gross, but if you’re on a liquid diet, it’s great.)

And brushing your teeth? Forget it. You might be surprised how much you miss your toothbrush.

After six weeks of this, the doctor cut the wires to reassess the situation, and the plate was doing fine, but the jaw joint hadn’t healed, and the jaw was still floating. This caused my back teeth on that side to come together where none of the other teeth could touch, and that had to be fixed. We set a second surgery date, and during that surgery, an artificial joint was placed. The upside to a new joint is that I didn’t have to be wired shut again, but the downside is that an artificial joint doesn’t work the same way as a natural joint, so it left me with the ability to only open my mouth about 1 inch (and that can make it hard to eat a lot of things). But it works! I can eat and talk (and that’s important for someone who likes to eat and talk).

That wasn’t quite the end of the ordeal, however. There were two later surgeries – one to place a skin graft on the wound that wouldn’t heal, and one to remove some of the equipment they had installed to wire my jaw shut in the earlier operation.

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No farmer plans on spending his summer with his jaw wired shut and scheduling four surgeries. Besides the inconvenience of all that, especially regrettable is the fact that a $60 part ended up costing over $100,000 in medical bills … and I still had to go buy the $60 part.

I think in agriculture we’re accustomed to tearing into equipment and fixing things without hardly thinking about it. We’ve turned a wrench so many times, we just grab one and get to work, maybe without knowing entirely what we’re doing. Sometimes we’re casual about it because we’ve performed that repair many times, but other times we’re working on something for the first time. If I had taken just a few minutes to pull up that procedure on the internet or watched a YouTube clip, I could have seen how those springs explode from those air brake chambers.

I actually feel pretty lucky today. I can eat and talk. I’m lucky it didn’t hit me in the head, causing brain damage or death. While it’s not something I want to have happen again, I’m glad I can share this with others so maybe they can learn from my mistake. I want other farmers to be careful when making equipment repairs, because at the end of the day, we all want to go home in one piece.  end mark

Lynn Jaynes
  • Lynn Jaynes

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PHOTO: The air brake chamber on the offending truck looks innocuous enough but can be extremely dangerous, even life threatening, if you don’t know what you’re doing. Photo by Earl Creech.

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