Kevin Saunders Speaks on Workplace Safety at Jacobs

by / Tuesday, May 15, 2018 / Published in Safety

This last week I had the honor of speaking to employees of Jacobs, one of the largest and most diverse providers of technical, professional and construction services in the world. They employ over 54,000 employees in more than 230 countries worldwide. I spoke on the topic of Workplace Safety, over the course of two sessions that were attended by 1,500 construction and engineering employees building a large, new chemical plant.

Kevin Speaks at Jacobs Construction Site

Over 1,500 workers filled the structure to capacity. I was honored to connect with so many great people throughout the day. A workplace explosion almost took my life – my goal is to help companies achieve ZERO incidents so no one else is hurt or killed.

Safety Starts at the Top with OPEN COMMUNICATION to Drive Safety First Throughout Every Level

A culture of Safety can only be implemented effectively when it starts at the highest level of a company’s org chart. Management, from the CEO, Board of Directors, Presidents and Vice Presidents must create an atmosphere that prioritizes worker safety in all areas. A Safety First culture means that any employee can report a safety hazard or concern without fear of repercussions, or of losing their job!

I’m Passionate About Putting Safety First!

Why? Because it was safety hazards being overlooked that left me completely paralyzed from the chest down, confined to a wheelchair with NO CORE BALANCE or body movement below my chest. I know the devastation of a tragic workplace accident, and I don’t want to see anyone suffer or die because they weren’t fully engaged in performing their job safely, efficiently and effectively.

For decades, I’ve been told by thousands of audiences that my personal story is an unforgettable one. They relate to my competitive nature, and they say feel like they’ve been on an emotional roller coaster ride when I recount the transformational moment when I was paralyzed from the chest down during a grain elevator explosion. Mine has been a remarkable journey, thanks to the many opportunities and experiences that I was able to embrace along the way. But I reminded Jacobs management and work force that they don’t have to go through the tragedy I endured to start living to their fullest potential. They can make great progress for themselves and their co-workers by always being fully engaged 100% – all the time, every day, on every job.

Kevin Workplace Safety Speech, May 2018

Left: Kevin on stage in light blue shirt, giving his Safety First speech.
Right: Jacobs employees were totally engaged throughout both safety presentations.

Any Safety Violation Can Be Deadly

I was employed as a federal inspector for the USDA at the time of the grain elevator explosion that killed many of my co-workers and almost cost me my life. On Monday, April 6, 1981, I found that the grain dust collection system was failing. This system removes airborne grain dust which can easily cause an explosion if concentrations rise, and a spark or other ignition source are present. My supervisor and I reported these findings to the engineer in charge at the Port of Corpus Christi, expecting them to take immediate action to fix this potentially lethal problem.

Corpus Christi Grain Elevator Explosion from across the bay

Picture taken from across the ship channel by an engineer at a chemical plant who happened to have a camera on his dashboard.

The engineer reported our findings to his bosses, but said they declined to do anything to address the problem. Why not? They refused to shut down the grain elevator for the 2-3 weeks it would take to fix the dust collection system, and they didn’t want to spend the $3 million dollars that these repairs were estimated to cost.

Blood, bodies were scattered all over! The parking lot looked like a battle field!

That failing inspection report should have caused alarm bells to go off at many levels in the organization, but no one else spoke up or pressed for action. The final decision of the grain elevator operators would prove to be fatal within 24 hours.

As the dust collection system broke down, grain dust level began to rise, becoming more dangerous by the minute. The very next day, at 3:10pm, a worker for the Public Grain Elevator improperly opened a can of phostoxin as he opened an access gate in the elevator. This set off a spark, which ignited the air already dense with grain dust. The worker had handled this product for decades, but this time he ignored the warning label on the can: “Open containers of metal phosphides in open air only and never in a flammable atmosphere.”

If the employee had maintained a Safety First attitude, and followed the safety procedures for opening the can of fumigant, he would have avoided setting off the explosion. If the dust collection system had been fully operational, it would have prevented the dangerous buildup of grain dust, eliminating the threat of such a powerful fuel source. If the grain elevator had been shut down for repairs, as we recommended the day before, the root cause would have been addressed quickly and professionally.

Instead, the worker’s safety slip-up triggered a deadly chain reaction of 12 explosions ripping through the grain elevator, with each blast more devastating than the previous one. The biggest explosion blew me through the roof of the two-story building I was in. I flew over 300 feet through the air, landing hard on a concrete parking lot, crashing down on my head and shoulders. The back of my skull was crushed and scapulas shattered. The force of the blast blew my legs over my torso and broke my ribs, collapsed my lungs and severed my spine from the chest down, paralyzing me. I spent a year in the hospital recovering from numerous injuries and learning how to live my life confined to a wheelchair.

You can see the rods where they fixed my back that was broken over at my chest like you bend at the waist. It is extremely painful all the time, but I know GOD gave me a second chance that day, when I didn’t die. Now my mission is to inspire and motivate others to stay fully engaged on the jobsite, and always put Safety First!

I spent a year in the hospital and still had trouble dealing with the reality of being paralyzed from the chest down. However, some of my rugby buddies came around after I was sent home. The first thing they did was take me to the weight room. That was something we had done together frequently before the accident, and they somehow figured out that getting me to work out again was going to be a good thing. On the first day, I can tell you that my heart wasn’t in it. However, soon I loved the challenge and ended up getting muscular and “ripped like Rambo,” according to those who knew me. I’d go on to participate in more than weight lifting. When I tried my first 10K Peachtree road race in Atlanta, GA, I would learn a valuable lesson in what it would take to excel in the world of wheelchair Track & Field.

I went from World Champion to Safety Champion. The people at Jacobs understand that Safety is fundamental to a world-class organization.

Kevin’s First Wheelchair Race

I was invited to participate in the Peachtree 10K road race by my older brother, Gerald. This was, and still is, the largest 10k race in the world. It takes place in Atlanta every year on the Fourth of July. Gerald was a CPA who had his offices a few hours away in Simpsonville, South Carolina. It was going to be a family affair. Gerald booked the hotel room for me, and his family stayed across from the starting line in anticipation of a family 4th of July 10K road race, followed by a picnic in the park and seeing the sites of Atlanta.

I arrived in Atlanta, and took a cab from the airport to the hotel. I was stunned when the two Bellmen at the hotel entrance asked if I was the Peachtree 10K road race Champion. Things got weirder when I entered the lobby. Inside people were congratulating me, saying, “You must be the Peachtree 10K men’s road race Champion!” Surely they had me confused with someone else…this was to be my very first road race! I finally asked one of these people why they assumed I was the champ. They replied, “You look like a champ! You’re all ripped up like Rambo in your wheelchair, and all the other wheelchair racers that have checked in are skinny!”

I told them I had never raced in a wheelchair, and this was going to be a new experience for me. I had a lot to learn in that race. When Gerald told me how he saw athletes there the year before racing in wheelchairs, he didn’t say anything about the type of chairs they were using. They were in racing wheelchairs that looked more like drag racers. I showed up in a bulky, hospital-issued wheelchair. Plus, I didn’t even know how far 10K was!

Kevin and his rugby buddy, Bruce Acuna after a workout. His friends helped him get ripped like “Rambo” (played by Sylvester Stallone).

“I love the sports world because nothing mirrors real life better than sports. You have to work hard to earn everything you get. To be successful in either world, it takes effort, discipline, courage, determination, and giving your best effort every time you train and compete. And you do your best work on a job while always putting SAFETY FIRST. You must stay engaged 100% so you get back home the same way you came into work! Remember, repetition makes perfect! From a management standpoint, I know you have a lot of work to do and there is a schedule for completion, but in NO WAY does that mean you should ever compromise personnel safety for production! On a jobsite you must be fully engaged at all times!”

Kevin Saunders

Kevin racing in the Paralympics for the GOLD.
Kevin spent 4 years training harder than he ever did for sports in high school and college.

Life Before My Jobsite Injury

I was an athlete on my feet as a high school and college student. I was big, fast, strong and nothing stopped me from being a tough competitor. Now that I’m completely paralyzed from the chest down, it’s easy to look back and reflect on all the things I took for granted back then. A task that may have taken me 5 to 10 minutes to complete in those days, now can take me 2 to 3 hours!

Kevin as a young college athlete

Kevin was a top athlete in high school and college (on athletic scholarship) in football, track & field, soccer and rugby.

My message to all American companies is to keep putting Safety First every day, all day long, you’ll be Safety Champions!


Types of risks associated:

Falling from heights, caught in between items being lifted / transported, electrocution, injury’s from improper tool use, injury resulting from taking shortcuts to save time, injuries from not utilizing protective equipment, mobile equipment related incidents

Key Message Points:

  • From Management – We have a large amount of work to do and there is a schedule for completion but in no way does that mean we will compromise personnel safety for production.
  • To workforce – All doing their part to be engaged in safe work practices is their assurance all will go home each and every day the same way they came to work. No shortcuts, no risk taking decisions.
  • Work the plan and execute all of our activities in an incident / injury free manner.
  • If plan changes; STOP and revisit the plan make sure incidents, mistakes or near misses never happen!

At the start of each work day, it is the responsibility of Project Management to stress to their foremen the onsite safety concerns of the day. If team members are working outdoors, this can include dangerous weather conditions, soil conditions and more. There are also basic and industry-specific concerns for which workers must follow the proper protocols. All of these regulations and procedures are a must for creating a Safety First work environment for everyone!

This is why it is critical to have an Open Tool Box Safety Meeting with each Foreman and his crew. These meetings are recorded and documented every day, covering important information to be conveyed to all workers related to their tasks, tools, safety equipment PPE needed and more. These elements must be discussed and signed off on by every employee.

Staying fully engaged on the job allows you to stay safe, be efficient, and helps you and your team to come in ahead of schedule, under budget, with no near misses, accidents or violations during every project! Anyone can easily forget if they’re not fully engaged, just like what happened to the grain elevator employee, Pete Garcia, who triggered the explosion that killed many and injured over 30 people, almost taking my life as well. Pete had been an employee there for over four decades, and was about ready to retire, but he died that day instead.

ANY SAFETY HAZARD Safety 1st PRECEDES SPEED! It’s important to work the plan and execute all of your activities without incident!

OSHA in the Workplace

OSHA isn’t just about the construction or engineering crews out there doing the work. It covers everyone from the top down. That means company executives – CEO, Board of Directors, Presidents and Vice Presidents – must create OPEN COMMUNICATION that creates an environment of Safety First on every jobsite. This culture must trickle down to all employees. That means anyone can report a safety hazard without fear of repercussions.

For example, we discussed how an Open Tool Box Meeting walks each crew member through the proper use of tools they will encounter on any given day. OHSA stipulates that tool operators be trained and certified in the correct operation of a tool used on the job site…It is an actual OSHA Safety Violation if an employee is not certified as an operator or not wearing proper PPE and more.

*OSHA is a construction worker’s best friend on the job site!
NEVER treat it as the enemy!

Avoiding OSHA Violations and Recordables on the Jobsite

Why? Because, it affects everyone from the top to the bottom, if you want to avoid violations and recordables, because if they get too many they won’t be allowed to set foot on the job site, it can mean no work for everyone on the jobsite. Many huge corporations have a policy of “no hire” if a potential vendor or partner company has too many.

That can mean less or no work, and for most employees that’s your livelihood. No job means no paycheck to support yourself or your family. That’s exactly why Safety comes first on the job site at all times!

It also impacts individual workers…too many violations or recordables and your job is on the line. If you see a safety hazard in your line of sight, where someone else is working and you fail to report it, then that’s on YOU! If someone gets killed or severely injured, you have to live with that on your conscience. I know I wouldn’t want that for anyone!

Documentation and recording safety meetings and having workers sign off on it is critical on the jobsite!

“Kevin Saunders’ message on Safety was SPOT ON from the top to the bottom. He kept his audience mesmerized and entertained, and served as a great example of someone who ‘Never Gave Up’ despite his injury on the job due to mechanical malfunction and a co-worker who was complacent, making shortcuts, and making risk decisions on his own.”

Ram Pritham
Executive Project Manager, Jacobs

Kevin at Jacobs with project managers

Kevin Saunders with Jacobs project management. Ram Pritham (left), Will Arnold (glasses), Jackie (female), Joe Sexton (white shirt).

As I closed my presentations to Jacobs’ employees, I remarked that I was grateful for all of my accomplishments: the world records, competing in and setting records at the Paralympic Games, serving on the President’s Council under three U.S. presidents, being cast alongside Tom Cruise in “Born on the Fourth of July” as a Principal Actor, being inducted into Adaptive Sports USA, National Wheelchair Athletic Association, Wheelchair Sports USA, and Wheelchair & Ambulatory Sports, USA Hall of Fame. I was honored to work with Kansas State football as the Motivational Coach from 1991 to present 2018, including being involved in Head Coach Bill Snyder’s “greatest turnaround in college football history.” I also became recognized as one of the top 100 speakers in America.

I am proud that I have been able to transcend my physical limitations to create new possibilities for myself and for millions of workers to reinforce how important staying safe on the job really is. No worker would want to be paralyzed from the chest down like me, or worse. I personally don’t want to see anyone else injured on a jobsite, period!

The Jacobs employees I spoke to were working an a large chemical plant, a multi-year project that requires expert planning, tons of raw materials like stainless steel, and the contributions of employees at all levels of the organization. I told them, “I would gladly trade in all of my Paralympic achievements and once-in-a-lifetimes experiences to have been part of an organization that valued a Safety First culture enough to focus on ZERO incidents. Maybe then I wouldn’t have been paralyzed, and so many of my colleagues wouldn’t have lost their lives that day.”

Kevin signs worker hard hats

Kevin signed workers’ hard hats with an inspirational message after his safety speech. Everyone at Jacobs was awesome, from top management to all the workers. The hard hats Kevin signed read “Keep Going for the Gold in all you do! Keep putting Safety First ALL THE TIME – NEVER GIVE UP!”

Always remember that Safety isn’t only about regulations, costs, checklists, management or gear. It’s about you and your co-workers. It’s about making sure that at the end of the day, you can all go home the same way you came into work. Like all good things in life, that is worth caring for and working toward a Safety First mindset.

Keep Going for the GOLD! Never Give Up!
Kevin Saunders, motivational speaker
Kevin Saunders

Kevin Saunders is a World Champion Paralympian, motivational speaker, athlete (with multiple gold medals) and author. Kevin Saunders was the first person with a disability appointed to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness Sports (only 20 people are selected for this nationwide) by the President of the United States. Kevin Saunders was first chosen to be appointed to the prestigious Council by President George H.W. Bush and was the only person reappointed by to this Council by President Bill Clinton and he was reappointed again by President George W. Bush as a constituent expert to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness & Sports. Learn more about Kevin’s story and accomplishments.