June is National Safety month. Over the years, I’ve spoken to many companies and corporations about the importance of having a strategy for improving health and safety in the workplace, at home and everywhere you go. Teamwork on the job isn’t just for productivity – it also helps the organization as a whole stay incident free!
In this post, I invite you to assess your own practices right now. How do you, your family, and coworkers – all the people around you – stay vigilant about safety at all times? Your habits and practices will contribute to your overall health and safety this summer and beyond. I also provide tips on how to keep everyone accountable for safety, which is a shared responsibility in any setting. Unlike other areas in life, you can’t be reactive about safety…it takes a proactive and preventive strategy at all times.
When it comes to reducing accidents and maintaining high levels of productivity, safety has to be seen as a primary workplace objective. Every team member, from workers to management, must be vigilant in mitigating safety risks, especially in changing or challenging environments. If anyone perceives a potential safety threat, the correct approach is to identify, assess and call in the right personnel to address it. In business, we are conditioned to try speeding up things and avoid delays. However, in the long run, following these safety procedures prevents injury and down time – factors that ultimately contribute to the company’s overall success.
Why I’m a Safety Champion
I’m passionate about Safety because I nearly lost my life in a preventable workplace explosion at the Corpus Christi Public Grain Elevator. It was triggered by a safety hazard where equipment designed to pull grain dust from the silos was not working at all. Researchers have found that grain dust is more explosive than gasoline and dynamite – approaching atomic energy in a blast. When I found that this critical equipment was not functioning, I reported to my supervisor on the job. We documented the equipment failure and met with head engineer of the port. He then presented these findings to port officials, but came back and told us that they didn’t have the 2 to 3 million dollars to fix this critical safety system.
Not long afterward, a series of 12 explosions rocked the grain elevator at a speed of 1,500 ft per second, increasing in size as grain dust was shaken loose, making the air more volatile. Forensic experts say that the explosion started when an elevator employee named Pete Garcia opened a can of grain fumigant named Phostoxin that ignited the initial explosion. The can Pete opened had a warning label directing users not to open cans in an enclosed area where grain dust or other flammable materials were present.
Pete Garcia was in his late fifties and had been doing this job for over 40 years. With that level of job familiarity, he had incorporated shortcuts as he had never experienced an accident after so many years on the job. That day, he wore his rubber knee pads to kneel down by the 100 lb. iron manhole cover at the top of the silo. He slid the cover off the opening a few inches – just enough to slip in the the pesticide can and open it to pour out the contents. However, with the grain constantly in motion, and the dust collectors not working, grain dust was suspended in the air all the way up to the top opening. When Pete opened the can, it flashed a flame into the highly combustible dust in the air. When equipment malfunction and human error both occur at the same time, it causes a catastrophe!
I was in the government inspection building when the rumbling started, and instantly knew that everyone’s life was on the line. Moments later, the largest explosion tore through our building, blasting me 300 feet through the air, where I crashed down on my head and shoulders onto a concrete parking lot. I was unconscious and I would have died in that parking lot, as no ambulances or stretchers were available while rescue personnel scrambled to get the injured to hospitals. However, a paramedic who didn’t want to leave me recruited a fire and rescue guy, and together they found a door lying in the debris, which they used as a makeshift stretcher and carried me to safety. I owe them my life.
After a month in a coma, I finally woke up in the hospital. I was in excruciating pain, face down in a hospital bed with massive internal and external injuries. My doctors told me there had been an explosion, and while I was injured, ten of my co-workers were dead. I wondered if they had been the lucky ones. The explosion and landing broke my ribs, collapsed my lungs and severed my spine at chest level. Doctors thought these injuries would kill me, but I survived. However, I’d be paralyzed for life.
Keep Each Other Safe
If you’ve read my story, or heard me speak, you know that I describe my journey as “Tragedy to Triumph.” I survived a deadly catastrophe, then found the courage and inspiration to become an elite world champion athlete, star in a film alongside Tom Cruise, make important celebrity friendships, and work with 3 US Presidents. It humbles me to think of the incredible people, events and moments that God placed before me to help me achieve something I wouldn’t have even dreamed of when I was on my feet. But I want to help others avoid the situation that precipitated all of this. It’s not worth giving up your health or your safety, especially as a result of ignorance or negligence.
Your life doesn’t have to be at risk to accomplish great feats. Your body doesn’t have to be broken to create motivation. You don’t have to live in constant pain to help others. You can do all the things I did after my accident…RIGHT NOW…while you have full use of your faculties and just as many reasons to succeed. DREAM BIG. WORK HARD. LEARN. EXCEED YOUR OWN EXPECTATIONS. And, yes, TAKE CARE OF EACH OTHER!
The importance of safety can never be understated. It’s a part of what humans have instinctively done since primitive times. We have kept our family, our clan, and our community safe for all. At home, at work and anywhere we gather, safety is everyone’s right…and everyone’s responsibility.
In closing, I want to honor every safety champion out there. You know the value of safety, and the cost of failing to adhere to it. Though others may bring a limited understanding of safety to the job, you’re there to guide, to protect and to instill a “Safety First!” attitude at the individual and organizational level. Thanks for all you do to make our people safer, and giving them a chance to thrive.
I’d give up all the medals and awards I won all over the world to walk, run & jump out of my wheelchair!