Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies, ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost. For the C-suite, it’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized ops and safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safe legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.
Hi, and welcome to the Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to have with me two special guests brad Livingston who worked for the gas company for well over ten years until he had a life-changing event that was 100% preventable. I’m also joined by Kayla Rath who is his favorite daughter and she’ll share a little bit about her perspective and what it meant to be part of the family when that event happened. So welcome both of you. Really excited to have both of you here with me today.
Thank you, Eric, happy to be here.
Thank you for having us.
Absolutely. So, Brad, why don’t you start by maybe sharing a little bit about the day of the accident? Kind of what transpired. I know when we told you really talked about how it was 100% preventable. If you could tell me a little bit about what happened that day in the store, there.
Okay. I upgraded that day to be a Weller helper. Wasn’t my normal job but I was filling in for the regular Weller helper who was gone that day on vacation. Happy to do it. I was enjoying my job and I went to work that morning with the senior welder. We drove to a location other than where we normally work to do some welding. We did some welding until 10:00 which was our break time, and we went in to take a break and our company pumper came out and said that he had a well just right outside the station yards from where we were that had two tanks on it and both tanks had a pinhole in a weld that went around the fire tube. Each tank asked the senior welder if we put that on the schedule some time to fix it. The senior welder said we would do it while we were there and there’s the reason for that. But we drove over to the well and I checked the atmosphere around outside of those tanks where we’re going to be doing the welding to check for an explosive level and everything was fine. So, the welder started to roll out the teams and I asked him what was going to keep a spark from setting the tanks off because what was in the tanks was some crude oil that was well made.
It also made a lot of drip gas or Connor state gas which is just like gasoline, it’s water that was down in the gas formation and when you bring the natural gas up by the ground, the water will come with it, and it’s taking on the characteristics of the natural gas, and that’s what makes it so much like gasoline.
So, I asked him if we need to gauge the tanks and double check the liquid level because he was counting on there being liquid behind where he was going to be welding, so that would prevent him from getting too hot as he welded on that tank, and he would not blow a hole in it and cause the explosion. So, he’s counting on that liquid being there. So, I suggested that we gauge the tank and double-check the liquid level. And this welder, whose name was Tracy, had worked for the company for 30 years, and he said, we don’t have time. So that’s a big red flag because it’s a procedure. Part of following the procedures is to double-check the liquid level. And so, it would have taken maybe three minutes at the very most, I believe three minutes, and I would engage the tanks. He had been told what he told me, that there were seven or 8ft of liquid in those tanks, and it was actually less than twelve inches.
Oh, my goodness.
Which meant he ended up welding above the liquid level. And so, then he got too hot and blew a hole in the tank. So had we actually followed procedure and gauged the tanks, we would not have done the welding. So, we argued about it. I tried to convince him to just stop and let me gauge the tanks. My actual role should have been to go to the truck and get the tape and walk up a catwalk and open a hatch, engage the tank.
If I’d done that, he would have waited for me. He was a very conscientious worker and welder and he always looked out for the safety of everyone else. I know he would have waited for me, but I was wanting him to agree with me instead of insisting on stopping him and taking that kind of step. And so, we didn’t get the gauges, the tanks gauged, and on the second tank that he was welding on, he burnt through the hole or burnt through the tank. And that tank exploded wow. Blew me up into the air. I landed on top of the other tank, and eight to 10 seconds later, that tank exploded and threw me back onto the ground, which actually helped save my life, because I was burning to death. I was surrounded by flames. My clothes were on fire. So, the second tank, when it exploded, actually was a good thing for me, because otherwise, I would have gone to death if I’ve ever got down off of that thing. So, one of the big issues was that when we were welding, we were working for a supervisor on that lease that Tracy didn’t like.
And so that was why he was in a hurry to get the tanks done so that we could get in, get that welling done, get off the lease, and he would no longer be working for a supervisor that he didn’t like. The other issue was, at that time, our company was frowning on overtime, so we had a whole day of welding scheduled. Now, we’ve added another job to that day, so Tracy thought, we just have to cut this short, take a shortcut, not follow all the procedures, and be back home before we got into overtime.
There are several red flags, like half a dozen red flags before the explosions ever happened that someone, including myself, of course, could have stopped what was going on, and it didn’t get done. We had another supervisor that had pulled up that was on location. He and I visited for maybe just 20 or 30 seconds while Tracy was welding on the first tank, and then while he moved to the second tank to weld, so he was slightly burned. When the first explosion happened, the ball of fire came at him. He was in his pickup, and he just slid across the seat and got out and ran away from it. Unfortunately, Tracy was killed, apparently as a result of the first explosion because it came out of the tank right where he was welding. So, a decision that was made based on a few other things yet to be mentioned, but not wanting to talk to a supervisor because he didn’t like it, to make sure it was okay to go do the job, wanting to save time, three minutes. He lost his life, and I was supposed to have lost mine. They told my family the explosions were on Friday morning and Saturday.
They told my family I wouldn’t make it through the night. 63% burn, 2nd 3rd degree burns, all of this basically over a shortcut, three minutes shortcut.
Yeah. One other issue I’ll go ahead, and mention is Tracy told me on the way over to that well that he had just built these fire tubes about six months ago in the shop, and someone else walked through the shop and saw those pinholes and told Tracy so he could write them out, patch them, and he forgot to do it before it got put into service. So that morning, when the piper told us about the two pinhole leaks, Tracy remembered that he had been told about those. And so, he basically said, we’re going to go and take care of this, and no one needs to know that I had made that mistake, that he had forgotten to fix those pinholes in the shop. So, a serious pride issue came into play, partly because the supervisor that he didn’t want to weld for just while we were on this lease. So, there are several things there that Tracy, as I said, looked out for everybody, for everyone’s safety except his own. When it came to someone that he didn’t want to talk to. So, all of those issues were at play. I could have stopped that anywhere along the line, but instead of doing the steps to stop it, I just argued with you.
There’s obviously a big difference between the two. So that’s what happened. That’s a quick rundown of what happened at the scene today.
Two things as well that struck me from what you’ve just shared. One is the importance of the supervisor and how the supervisor becomes approachable. People can speak up and raise issues because I think when you fear what could go wrong with a supervisor, then you can take shortcuts as well as you’ve shared, or you worry about a consequence that’s lesser than the two. The other part that strikes me is the fear of reprisal as opposed to a real learning organization. And when you’re learning, these things surface, and people are comfortable taking responsibility because they know that there isn’t fear built into the system.
Yes. When I speak to supervisors, I will ask them, how many of you have said that you have an open-door policy. And almost all of them will always raise your hand. But there’s one thing to say that, but it’s something else for an employee or subordinate to be able to know he could walk in and talk to his supervisor and there not be any repercussions. I have spoken for companies, one in particular, where a new employee reported some older employees as having broken several regulations, and the company was firing that new employee for reporting the older guys.
So, I told the safety director there, I said, well, you know, you’re never going to hear anything from the new guys again because there’s this kind of repercussion about reporting the older guys who are breaking the rules. They’re not going to say anything. And that’s absolutely the opposite of what there has to be.
I think these are really important points because I think the rule of the supervisor, how you respond to something that doesn’t go well, is incredibly important in ensuring it’s consistent. So, Brad, thank you very much for sharing that. Kayla, if you could share a little bit about how you heard about it, how you got to the hospital, and kind of what was your impact as a family member, and the impact of this growing up?
So, I found out at school that day, Tracy’s granddaughter was in my class, and she had been pulled out of school just before lunch by a family member who took her out of school and told the other teachers that Tiffany’s grandfather had been killed at work.
And we grew up in a real small town, and so everyone was talking about it at lunch and at recess. A couple of friends and I were talking, and I said, my dad works with Tracy. Sometimes I wonder if he was one of the other guys that had been hurt. We had heard that there were two other ones hurt and our teacher was kind of, hey girl, don’t worry about it. Nobody’s dad was hurt. It’s not your dad.
So, we went back in after recess, and we were watching a movie my principal came into the room and he asked if he could talk to my teacher. And they walked out into the hall. They talked for just a few minutes, and then they came back in. When they came back in, they were both crying. And my teacher said, Kayla, you need to get your things together. So, we walked out of the hall and walked down the hall with the principal. And my mom’s best friend was standing at the end of the hall, and she was crying and there were teachers around her. And she pulled me kind of into a hug and she said, okay, we’re going to go get your sisters. I was still in elementary school at the time. My sisters were in middle school at the time. So, we drove over to the middle school, and I kept asking her, Connie, what’s wrong? What happened to my dad? And she wouldn’t answer. And so, we pulled up to the middle school and my sister’s got in the car and then Connie let us know that dad had been burned in an explosion and my mom was with him at that time and that my mom had asked her to come to get us out of school so that we wouldn’t hear about it from anyone else.
And so, we ended up staying with Connie and her family for a total of three weeks while dad was in the burn intensive care unit in Lubbock, Texas, which is about 5 hours away from our hometown. And so, we stayed with them. And then my grandparents moved up to Elkart, where we lived and lived with us for the remaining two and a half months before we then all ended up down in San Antonio while dad was in rehab. We were in San Antonio for eleven months, all of us together, before we came back home.
Growing up. So obviously Brad made it out of the hospital. It sounds like initially there were some concerns about how you would get through this. How did it feel growing up? What was the impact? Because obviously here you’ve moved many times, you had to be in different locations. It brought a lot of interruptions to the day-to-day. Tell me a little bit more about what it means to grow up in this case.
Initially, after the accident, we were treated like celebrities. And we loved that everyone was they cared about the Livingston girls and what was going on with the Livingston girls. So, at first, of course, our daily life was completely 100% disrupted.
But coming back from it after 14 months, when we finally were all home, after dad had finished all of his senses at the hospital and rehab, from that point on, it was kind of everyone just expected that life was back to normal for the Livingston. Brad was hurt, but he was alive. We hear a lot about mental health issues and trauma and processing trauma, sure. And that’s all very important. But in the 90s, that was not really something that we heard about and talked about. And so, I think it was for our community members, it was really interesting. Looking back now, I can see that if any of us had a problem, it was probably just geared up to or attributed to, I should say, teenage rebellion. But we look at it now and we’re like, oh, I was clearly processing some anger in that moment or grief. And also, we were very, or at least I was. I can’t speak for my sisters, but I was very protective of my dad because he looks the way he does, you can see that he is burned. I didn’t ever want anyone to think that he wasn’t loved because he was burned.
And so, if I saw someone staring at him, I would put my hand in his hand. Even in high school, even now, I will still do it in airports if we travel together, I’ll just grab onto his hand or I’ll look at him and laugh or something because I want people to know that he’s not a freak. He is burned and he is different because of that. But he’s still a human and he’s still loved. And that was just a thought that I had as we were going through therapy as a family. Part of our therapy was to see people’s responses to him and not get angry. And so instead I just got sad. I got really sad because I saw people’s responses to him, and it made me sad that people would look at him and see someone who’s burned and not who he is.
Right. Brad, you also had to process your coworkers’ death in the explosion. How the recovery took time. Tell me a little bit about how it went, knowing everybody, you have a very supportive family that was there for you. Tell me a little bit about your experience in terms of all of this.
There’s, of course, the survivor’s deal that happens. Tracy, as I mentioned, he took care of everybody. And I don’t know that there’s anyone who worked at our station that did not look up to Tracy. He stood up for anybody. And so, when I found out that he’d been killed, basically I was unconscious for two and a half months. So, when I became conscious, one of the things I asked my wife about as soon as my head cleared enough and I started asking intelligent questions, was what has happened to Tracy? And the nurses there had coached her. They knew how my mind would clear and how long it would take for the drugs to wear off and such. And so, they waited a few days before they told me that he had been killed in explosions and it’s just immense grief. It was a human being who died, but it was Tracy, it was a leader, someone that everyone respected and looked up to. And for those of us who work in the pipeline department, he was our main leader, really, overall. So, the instant survivor guilt hit, but then I got nowhere to go, I’m stuck in a hospital.
It’s just going over and over in my mind for hours and hours and days and weeks and months. What should I have done differently? What could I have done differently? What procedures were not in place? And I could never come up with an answer. We had the procedures; we just didn’t follow them. And looking at the conversations that all happened prior while we were still in the break room, half a dozen people there that any one of them could have said, he just can’t go with her and weld on these tanks, but it never happened. And then me arguing with Tracy and instead of just doing what I need to do and so all this stuff, just a day after day after day, going over in my head with what they told me, you may never walk again. I had been an athlete my whole life and distance running was my biggest thing. I loved running and my wife had been told because I didn’t have on my gloves, and I had on jeans that were 60% cotton and 40% polyester. So, laying in that fire, polyester melted my legs and into the muscle. And my wife was told that if I survived that my legs and my hands would have to be amputated and it was solely by the grace of God that they weren’t.
But then I was told there may not be enough muscle left, you may never have enough balance to walk. And so, I was 32 years old when it happened and basically the prime of physical life for a man. And now I can’t even go to the bathroom by myself. When I became conscious, I rely on the nurses for everything and of course, my wife was right there. Then I see my daughter’s come visit on weekends while I’m at the permissive care unit and I can see that they’re trying to put on a happy face, but it’s not happy. Their lives have been completely interrupted. I’m not at home with them, their mom’s not at home with them. So, I can see it’s just the beginning of me being able to see what I have put them through. It became the biggest amount of pain in my presentation. I talk to guys about; how tough you think you are. Because when you’re going to find out is not how physically tough you are, it’s how mentally tough you are when you see what your family’s going through that you have caused. By me being in an industrial incident, causing the amount of pain that I’ve caused.
And Kayla talks about the ripples and how to this day, she still rides some of those ripples. They will never go away, perhaps for her and for other people, and knowing that I’m the cause of that, and laying there over and over my head, going over easily, this all could have been prevented, right? Of course, when we got home from all the rehab, I went to see Tracy’s widow. And that’s a day that every bit is tough, if not tougher than the day of explosions. When you look a family survivor in the face, look them in the eyes and tell them what happened and when it could have been prevented. And they’re crying and you see the pain and the anger that they’re dealing with for something that never had to happen. But we saved those three minutes, right? And saving those three minutes on the job is supposed to mean something, apparently, but it doesn’t. It’s just something guys especially, that women can and do something to justify in our own minds how and why we should take these shortcuts or deal with our pride to cover up a mistake. And there were improper perspectives that I talked about in my presentations that lead to bad attitudes.
So, there are just so many things that could have and should have prevented this from happening. And you talk to anyone that’s been hurt and they’re going to say the same thing, they do better. They knew what to do, right? And they just chose to not do it for a number of reasons.
So, you both speak to a lot of audiences, to a lot of organizations around safety and making it personal and the impact on the family. And I think bringing your collective stories is incredibly powerful. What are some of the messages that you share in terms of the key takeaways? Because some of the things that we mentioned before that come to mind are the supervisor needs to be accessible. You talked about how when you say you have your door open, is it really open? Right? Because if somebody creates an environment where I don’t feel comfortable speaking up or there are unintended rules around not paying overtime, sometimes the message gets cascaded in a way that sends the wrong intent. I can tell you stopping work sounds simple in words, but it’s not that straightforward because of the dynamics and everything that comes in. So, tell me a little bit about the message the both of you. Share two audiences team members, supervisors, to leaders, because I think it’s a very powerful story between the both of you.
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I think, for me, one of the things that I talk about, and I believe Kayla does too, is the Stop Work Authority. I was raised I’m 63 years old actually, today, and we were not raised in the backtalk. Adults and those in charge were the authority. We were not ever given a stop-work authority. You do what you’re told, and you work, and somebody else makes the decisions. And now that didn’t start changing, I don’t think, until in the mid-90s or so. And now it is it’s becoming more prevalent. But there is still just this year where I have spoken, companies who say they have stock work authority, but when you single out young guys and not just a new employee, but a younger one in their 20s, they don’t feel like they can stop something without the older employees getting upset with them. Okay, here’s your choice. Do you want somebody to be upset with you or do you want to go home safe? Because many times that’s one or the other is going to happen, we can live with somebody being upset with us, and they’re going to get over it.
Most likely, sure.
But the Stop Work authorities, supervisors, I believe, have a great responsibility of making sure employees understand how and when to use that, and that they do have that right and responsibility.
And I’d say I would go even further in saying, how is it reinforced? Right. Because like you said, there’s crew dynamics and then there’s organizational dynamics that are impacting that choice. And I remember I’ve asked some executives, senior level when was the last time you recognized somebody who stopped work and they can’t find the time? And if you’re not recognizing that, then you’re recognizing getting the job done 200 times, I can tell you have stopped work authority, but unintended consequences. I keep hearing, thank you for Brad, for getting it done, but you’ve never gone praised for stopping work, the unintended consequences. Maybe I’m not really supposed to stop working here.
Right. And part of that, one of the improvements some companies have made are job safety analysis and hot work permits. And we didn’t have those. If we had to fill either of those out, there was no way we would ever do the welling on those tanks that day because it would have been too obvious. We can’t. So, these forms that some companies are using and the Tailgate meetings, where can I just refresh? What are all the hazards around us right here today? Some of that takes care of a Stop Work Authority because you have everybody anybody focused on the job and heading for the same thing. And so that helps not to have to stop a job. And those are people, of course, elderly guys like me who buck that. We don’t want to do the paperwork. We’re out here to get it done and go home. So those are good things that are happening by having some of those forms now to have to fill out every day, every day, fill them out.
As long as people don’t become complacent with them. Right. Because sometimes if I’m doing the same job over and over, I start getting comfortable that it’s the same as yesterday, but it’s not quite the same as yesterday. Something’s a little bit different. The environment is a bit different. It looks a little bit different. So, you still have to engage, and you still need to be able to comfortably pause. And even if it’s just taking a few seconds to say, let’s really rethink if it’s what we talked about in the tailgate or tailboard to make sure it really is what we think it is.
Right. And one of the things I’ve been told, kelly, you can pipe in here, too, anytime, but some of the younger people are more willing to step up and say, this doesn’t look safe. More than even a 50-year-old, because the 50-year-old has worked with this other guy for so many years. And so, I encourage younger people. Kayla’s age on down. If you just smell that it’s not right, if you have the gut feeling, it’s not just something you can do, it’s something you have to do, it is a responsibility.
Yeah. So, the other message, if I remember, that you really touch on is really the importance of starting safety at the top, making sure there are no repercussions if you raise an issue and really kind of the reinforcement with new team members. In terms of a lot of these principles, I think it’s so important in your story. As an example, he knew that he had made a mistake and because there was in comfort raising a hand because of what could go wrong, that also contributed to it. So, it’s really important that to me at least, it’s very important that you have a learning environment that gets reinforced from the top. Dan and Dale but tell me a little bit about the perspective that you share with audiences.
So, as you mentioned, we talked to every kind of company, and I have spoken to companies that it’s very obvious they say one thing and do something else. When it comes to safety, I’m there for a day for a presentation, or maybe I’m there for a few days, a few presentations. I feel like I have a platform to say things that the employees don’t feel comfortable saying. And so there have been times that I have mentioned it’s the company’s responsibility to provide you with all the training you need, to provide you with the PPE. You need all the equipment and the tools to do your job safely, but then it’s up to you to go out and do it safely. And so, there’s got to be a connection between, okay, Mr. Foreman, I need this new indicator or sensor or something. Well, okay, that doesn’t mean. I’m going to just get it, but at least I can tell you what it is I think we need that will improve the efficiency of our job. And of course, more safety is more efficient.
We have to be able to communicate, and to me, that’s a lot of it the supervisors have to be open to the communication of what is it that you need. And the guys will have to say, the subordinates have to be able to say, this is why I need it. It’s not just that I want it because it’s a new toy. This is something that’s going to really improve my ability to do the job. That line of communication between employees and supervisors has to be open enough that everyone feels comfortable that they can do that. And so that starts with, I think, with the day you hire somebody.
Start going through the initial training orientations, and they’re going to get a sense people are pretty smart overall. They’re going to get a sense of what’s being said that I could do, and they’re going to get a sense of what things really, we encourage you not to do. And if there is any kind of hesitation between or on that line of communication, they’re not going to go to a supervisor until they’ve seen it done. So, it has to start at the top with this open line of communication. Tell me what you need, I will see about getting it. An employee has to understand this budgetary issue. It may not happen sure. Right away. And that’s an issue too. When we want something, we want it. So, there’s got to be understanding on that end as well. But that’s a communication thing.
Go back to the Dark Ages. Everything was about communication.
Kayla, any closing thoughts from you? I think what I really love about your story is how the two of you kind of share the story, both from Brad’s perspective and also from the family standpoint as a favorite daughter. What would be some of the additional thoughts you’d have in terms of a message on the importance of putting safety first and some of the message around stopping work authority in a day-to-day world?
One of the things I talk about in my presentation is several years after the accident, dad had coworkers tell him that Tracy had done the exact same type of welding a couple of months earlier with that guy, and he had not stopped Tracy. And when dad told me that, it kind of made me angry because that coworker had just said something to Tracy or to a supervisor. Then on September 20, 1991, my dad might have come home that night. And so, I talked about the importance of if you see something going wrong, you need to say something, and you have a responsibility not just to that co-worker and not to the company, but to that coworker. Family. Because when you don’t say something and something goes wrong, their family is impacted too. Lives with it for ten months down the road and ten years down the road. And now here we are almost 31 years down the road, and we still live with it. So, my presentation is all about the ripple effect and how that one three-minute shortcut that my dad didn’t take that saved three minutes, how that has impacted us moving out, how it’s impacted him, how it’s impacted me, how it’s impacted, my children.
Research has shown that children who experience trauma at an early age go through life with an expectancy that the trauma is going to show up again. And it’s absolutely true. I see it played out in my life every day. That’s maybe being a little melodramatic, but nothing from you guys. But I do see it playing as I parent my own children and as I go off to work, I’m always waiting for something to go wrong because it went wrong when I was nine, so why would it not repeat itself? So that is how I drive home as I’m speaking. It’s not just about you. It’s about your co-worker and their family. It’s about your family. It’s about going home. Because whom do we all say we work safe for? We work safely for our children or our spouse or our parents or our dog. If I don’t go home tonight, who feeds my dog? Just those really simple things that we take for granted when we walk in the door at the end of the day, that we’re there because of safety and we have to be there tomorrow because of safety. That’s a decision we have to make.
Now, safety has to be forward-thinking. You have to constantly be looking for what could go wrong. What could go wrong if we don’t gauge these tanks? You have to constantly be looking for the next thing so that the next thing that your kids are looking forward to, which might be you helping them with their science project can happen.
One of the things when Kayla first talked and started setting in on the, so she is sitting on safety meetings, they’re given TRS and a lot of different safety laws and acronyms. And Kayla said, dad, I don’t know what all those means. And so, I said to her, you don’t have to know. You’re not here as an employee who understands all those statistics are putting up on the slide. You’re here representing the family. So, she started saying and she incorporated that into a presentation about she’s good at pointing and she point to the crowd, she’ll say, I don’t know what your safety rules are and your regulations, and I don’t need to know. She said, I’m telling you as your children or I’m representing your children and your family standing here, and I’m telling you, I expect you to go to work and I expect you to come home. I don’t need to know what your rules are at work.
And they don’t care. Your kids don’t care about what rules and regulations, or your kids don’t care, in Dad’s case, about whom you do or do not like at work. They care that you’re there for their softball game.
Thank you very much for putting the effort that you do in sharing a story and convincing others to stay safe, to really reinforce within leaders and supervisors the impact that they have in terms of creating the right environment. I really appreciate the effort that you put into making that difference day in and day out. If somebody wants to bring you to present to their organization, what’s the best way for them to reach out to your website to connect with you?
Okay. That’s safetydifference.com and [email protected] will get you to where you can go straight to send us an email. And we’re both on that. We’re both on that website.
Absolutely. I really like the joint story that you bring because I think it’s easy to see one side but seeing the two sides just makes it even more powerful. So, thank you for joining together to share that message.
Thank you, Eric. We enjoy doing I appreciate you having us on.
Thank you for having us.
Thank you. All the best.
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