Pianist's hands crushed in abattoir accident on Australian gap year

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EXCLUSIVE: Yun Kim’s dreams of playing piano professionally were ruined in a horrific incident in Victoria. She spoke to SBS News about her challenging path to recovery.

WARNING: This article contains content some may find distressing. 

A gap year in Australia was Yun Kim's chance to further her love of music.

In September 2016, the aspiring musician - who played piano and flute - said goodbye to her family in South Korea to embark on her adventure.

“I just want to make my own music [so] I thought I should study English more, for music,” the 22-year-old from Paju, north of Seoul, told SBS News.

Yun Kim
Yun Kim, 22.
SBS News

To fund her aspirations, and develop her language skills, she began a job at an abattoir in Victoria’s south-east, on a one-year 417 Working Holiday visa.

But several months in, Ms Yun’s life changed forever when she was injured in a horrific workplace incident.

Her hands were crushed when they were caught in the chains of a ‘hide puller’ machine, used to strip a cow carcass of its leather.

“The chains kept rolling. The chain, just rolling, it kept rolling,” she said.

‘Hide puller’ machine
Ms Yun's hands were caught in the chains of a ‘hide puller’ machine.
Supplied

The chains kept rolling ... it kept rolling. 

- Yun Kim

The injuries caused her to pass out and she was rushed to hospital, where she would spend a week in intensive care.

Five of her fingers – three on one hand, two on the other – had to be amputated, two down to her knuckles. Her ring finger on her left hand was successfully re-attached, but its function is limited.

The incident has left the young woman traumatised and unable to carry out everyday tasks.

“What can I do? … even, I can’t brush my teeth,” she said.

“I’m worried about everything. I can’t even pick up tissues with my hands.”

An x-ray of Ms Yun's hands.
An X-ray of Ms Yun's hands.
Supplied

Ms Yun’s mother flew out to support her for two months following the accident but had to return to South Korea.

For the last few months occupational therapist Diane Hedin, who is based in Melbourne, has helped with Ms Yun’s rehabilitation. A psychologist and psychiatrist have also assisted with the impact on her mental health.

“Her career’s had to change, but also just everyday life,” Ms Hedin told SBS News.

“Even dressing, she says she has to put pull-on clothes on, it hurts her now to wash her hair. When she’s trying to cook, she can’t really prepare food.”

“She just hasn’t got grip, or power.”

While her prosthetic fingers assist with aesthetics, they provide little function.

Ms Yun as a child.
Ms Yun as a child.
Supplied

The abattoir's insurer is processing Ms Yun's claims and she is receiving some compensation, but it’s a legal minefield the young woman says she cannot navigate alone. She needs an interpreter to help with some matters. She remains in Australia on a medical visa which expires in January and has not been working since the incident.

Gino Andrieri, a principal at law firm Maurice Blackburn, which is acting for Ms Yun, said her trauma has left her particularly vulnerable.

“Anyone who’s suffered an injury whilst a visa holder is going to encounter difficulties,” he said.

Anyone who’s suffered an injury whilst a visa holder is going to encounter difficulties.

- Gino Andrieri, lawyer

“Part of that is language difficulties, access to interpreters and being able to express herself. She’s had some difficulties in terms of delay and decision-making so some of the entitlements she has been approved, some of the entitlements there have been delays in the approval, and some of them have been outright rejection.”

“This is one of the more tragic cases I’ve seen.”

Ms Yun
Everyday tasks are now difficult for Ms Yun.
SBS News

“In 2016, a report by Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass found a number of systemic issues involving complex compensation cases. That investigation has now been reopened due to a number of fresh complaints.
Workplace health and safety cases require a significant amount of evidence.

“We found cases of workers being unreasonably denied compensation to which they were entitled,” Ms Glass said.

“We’re finding that we’re still receiving complaints from injured workers, and this is a crucially important area. These aren’t just numbers and files; these are about people's lives and the human cost of this shouldn’t be forgotten.”

The Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union says an unprecedented number of people on 417 visas are employed to fill jobs in the industry.

Their particular vulnerabilities, such as language barriers, add a layer of complexity when something goes wrong.

Ms Yun is still living with her trauma and says her dreams of becoming a musician are over:

“It’s just like losing your appetite. I’m just losing my passion, for everything.”

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