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A special episode in honor of December Family Month features an excellent conversation with Russ and his wife Laurel. Their message is a strong warning that one split-second decision can change many lives forever. Russ is a work-related paraplegic, and he touches on the dangers of an “it won’t happen to me” attitude in the workplace. He reminds the listeners that accidents can happen to any of us, especially when carelessly ignoring safety precautions. Laurel discusses how one careless act has affected every aspect of their lives. Listen to a truly inspirational story about the importance of safety ownership from Russ and Laurel.
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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and wellbeing 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 option safety guru, public speaker and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.
Hi and welcome to the Safety Guru today. I’m very excited to have with me Russ and Laurel Youngstrom, both are safety advocates and keynote speakers. They do a phenomenal job at sharing their journey as a couple and really speaking to move safety from the head to the heart. I love that quote. So maybe if you can start a little bit about telling me about your journey and what happened on that day and then we’ll take it from there.
Yeah. I used to be a commercial painter. I woke up that morning, gave Laura Let his goodbye, looked in on our son, Spencer. He was sound asleep in his little bed. He was two and went to work, stopped off, got my four shots of Espresso and a Maple bar, and I was the first one to work that day. But I saw the clipboard. I signed it immediately, and then we had a quick safety meeting. I don’t remember. And then our goal was to power wash the outside of the paper mill.
And I always work with a really good friend of mine. We had a new guy with this, so we got all our rigging set up for a swing staging scaffolding. We started off at 180ft supervisors, Foreman. They all came up and inspected everything. So, we started power washing, and I unlocked my arms almost immediately. That’s just me.
Okay. Next thing, somebody got our attention and it was time for lunch. The weather was really bad, really terrible. So, we wouldn’t have lunch. We got ready to go back to work. And the paper mill stopped nine of us and said, you have to come to our safety meeting. It’s like, okay. So, I walked up a flight of stairs, got a Snickers, bark up a coffee, turned the chair in front of me around and put my feet on it and listened to some guy with a laser pointer and completely ignored it.
We went back to work, started power washing, and I had that funny idea. We’re being watched. I looked and our safety guy drove a little too far on the back side of the building where we can see the front of his truck. So immediately I hooked up and we never got caught. He was there for about 20 minutes and finally left. And then we started hard watching again. And it was time for the end of the day. And I took it up on myself to say let’s put it on a 30-foot platform and try it off overnight to the handrail.
Okay. A friend of mine agreed. So, we came up with my little plan. I did have my harness on at the time, and my safety line was in a bad angle that I didn’t like. Sure, my safety line went right by the friend of mine. He put his hands up and said, no, I told him to F off. So, we both climbed up on the handrail.
And right. When I climbed up, I looked down. I could catch myself. I wasn’t worried at all. And then I got a signal from somebody. The chills, the goosebumps down the back of my neck. Like, don’t do this. And by the time we picked up the scaffolding and by the time I get even blank, swung back and hit me in the chest and threw me back about 10ft.
Oh, my goodness.
Our hat comes off. Safety glasses come off, and it does go in slow motion. And my first instinct immediately from the gentleman that hired me years ago. He said, never land on your feet. You’ll blow your feet, your knees, your hips. That’s the first thing that came to mind. It’s like, okay, what just happened? I couldn’t find my legs at first, and then finally, I can see my legs. Okay, I’m going to land on my right side, hit roll and walk it off. Okay. I got this.
And right before I was going to hit all of a sudden, my right leg got stuck in some Airlines and then stopped me, then budgeted me back up. And that point, I was completely lost. And the first thing I felt has young kids, watermelons, pumpkins that would never take off porches. It drove on the ground, and you hear that explosion noise? That’s what I felt in my head. The first thing that hit and then a snap. It’s like, okay, walk this off. Okay, walk it off.
It couldn’t get up. And I tried breathing. It’s like, I can’t breathe. I tried to breathe in again. I took one last try to breathe and kept my eyes were closed and I just got warm. The pain went away. I don’t know what you call that transition, but it was okay. I was just there. Then all of a sudden, I felt someone grabbed my hands and I looked up. And it was a friend of mine. And the first thing I asked him was, how come my feet are touching my head?
He’s like, what are you talking about? I go, my feet are touching the back of my head. He goes, your legs are straight. And then he said, I’ll be right back. I’ll get help. And so, I could hear in the background, fire trucks, ambulances people started to show up and Foreman and supervisor walked up to me, looked down on the ground and said, there goes your F and safety record or hard.
Great way to show compassion.
And then the paramedics were getting me stabilized. One of them said to call Airvac, and then the whole mood changed. But I didn’t realize that I landed less than 2ft from my safety line. It wasn’t at a bad angle. I didn’t care. It won’t happen to me.
So, it took me to the nearest hospital. I started puncturing the lungs, so I came out the other side of this machine, and this female Ninja trauma nurse lady leaned over, gets about two inches from my face and says, you broke your back in three places, served your spawn cord. You’re confined to a wheelchair. No, it doesn’t happen to a person like me. It happens to the other person. One doctor was saying how many fingers he could put in the back of my head. One was working on the punctured lungs, and the other one was doing a catheter, which is convenient now.
And the other one was drying my blood. They don’t give you anything for discomfort in Washington until they dry your blood. And so, my blood came back fine. I made a comment. My blood came back stupid. They took me to my little private room, and then it happened. Laura walks into the room. I don’t know what to say. So, I told her what the female doctor said, and she thought I was joking because I’m a jokester you can’t tell. But Laurel didn’t believe me when I told her what happened.
So, she pulled over. A friend of mine just never left. He’s been with me the whole time. And so, he pulled her aside in the room, and they started to cry. I started to cry. I was so thankful I didn’t hurt anybody else. But I found out later people had to go to counseling that saw the fall, right?
Yeah. I don’t want to get too involved in certain things, but the one thing I have to admit to is that last safety meeting they made us go to where I had my Snickers bar, walked up to the fly of stairs. It was a full protection safety meeting an hour and a half before I fell. And you didn’t even pay attention to that one?
No. I signed the clipboard. Right.
And Laurel, tell me about your journey through this, because it must be shocking when you get the phone call. Yeah.
Something that you never want to happen to anyone you care about. I was at a nursing home where I was working, and my supervisor came to me, and she said, you have a phone call. I thought that’s weird because I don’t get phone calls at work. And all they could tell me on the other end of the phone was that Russ had been in a serious accident, and then I had to get to the hospital right away, rehearse for things like that just react. And so, I drove.
But I don’t know how I made it I didn’t even really know if I was already a widow by the time I got there.
So, Russ, you knew that you should wear the harness. You knew you need to tie it in. You tied it when somebody was there.
Right. So, when somebody was watching, you knew that you had to put it in. How come you took it out as soon as somebody leaves? Was it just for show for that supervisor? Because that happens often, right? Somebody’s watching. There’s an observation. Everything looks good. And then the person walks away and it’s a different scenario.
I didn’t care. One of my problems is it won’t happen to me. I’m 30 years old, Mr. Tough guy. I don’t need to follow the rules. It’s going to slow me down. I would come up with excuses all the time. It’s like we’re in a seat belt. I always came up with the excuse that it’s more dangerous to unhook a hook all the time, but it was just an excuse. Yeah, I can’t say anything, except it was just my mentality.
When we talked about it. This before you talked about risk-taking and comfort risk-taking. So, supervisor is there sees everything looks good. How do you recognize somebody like that who’s more likely to be comfortable taking more risks? Who might be more comfortable taking something off when nobody’s watching?
I think Dyslexia has one thing to do with it being criticized by your dad or family members that you’re not smart enough or tough enough to go to college. And so, it’s almost a program to work extra hard as much as you can to make yourself feel better, that you are somebody.
And so, what can a supervisor do when they see somebody who’s more of a risk-taker? What would be some of the guidance you’d give them to? Make sure something like this doesn’t happen to make sure that more of a risk-taker pays attention in a safety meeting.
To spot a person like me. Always early to work. Anger issues doesn’t work well with others, except for a certain group and a person who likes to go out after work and drink. And this is just my opinion. Sure, that’s one way I look in the audience when I’m talking and I can see me after the talk, the management come up. How did you know it was him? Because I can see me in these people. And then they ask me, what can you do? What can we do to help them and you have to fire them?
You have to let them go. You can’t fix broken extreme sports these days. Peer pressure is much worse now than it was back in my day, right.
I think the safety programs have improved quite a bit, though, but I think that making sure that your employees know that you care. They’re not going to care about how much you know until they know how much you care and be genuine about it. Get to know people and create relationships between yourself and your employees and between your employees and each other. Encourage them to get to know each other and so that they feel comfortable telling someone if they feel like something is unsafe and the other person feels comfortable accepting that, too. That’s a big thing.
Respond even maybe. How do you give the feedback in that particular? How does peer-to-peer feedback happen? Russ, would you mentioned before that it won’t happen to me. I’ve heard so many times. I’ve heard so many times that somebody says, you know what? I know how to do my job. It’s somebody else. The person who got injured is the one who didn’t know how to do it. They weren’t as tough. They weren’t as whatever. And these rules, whatever, don’t apply to me. How can you shift somebody’s mindset around it to say, yeah, I should do this? It matters.
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I don’t have the answer. I got the consequence, but try to bring family into it if they have kids, but you can’t fix them. I feel bad for saying that, but most people need to be let go and make an example. And the tough part about all this was a friend of mine who witnessed this whole entire thing. He got fired four years later for not using proper fall protection. But he witnessed this whole entire thing and he still went back to old behavior. I don’t have the answer. I really don’t.
The more you can make safety relationship. If they trust you, and if they trust each other, then they’re going to be more comfortable taking advice and following the safety rules. And if they’re thinking about why they’re there, they’re thinking about the reason that they’re at work because they want to make a better life for their family. Well, they’re not going to have a better life if something happens to them. I mean, create a positive safety program, maybe some mentorship with the new guys and the veterans and create an open-door policy, make the meetings engaging and maybe let them know what it’s going to be like if they get hurt.
What were you talking about?
Put like, an eye patch on somebody for a half a day, making these crutches tie an arm behind their back.
Sure, they know what it’s going to be like if they would lose a limb or lose their sight or something like that. And it’s really tough love. If you care about your employees, then you do everything you can to make sure that they want to be safe because they’re not going to be safe if they don’t want to rest is a plain example of that.
No, go ahead. One of the tough things for me is Spencer asked me. He was about seven years old. He asked me, what do you do at these meetings? And I told Spence I go, I just tell him my story, how I got hurt. If you don’t think of yourself, think of your family. He said, how come you didn’t think of me?
You just blamed up on my lap. And I held him and said, Sorry, that’s all I could come up with. But haven’t put pictures of their family, their dog, something that means a lot in their hard hat or a family board. But something that another thing, too, that we’ve been hearing that works well is sending a letter home to the family member, to the wife or to the husband. Hey, your husband been working unsafely. This is his last warning. If he gets caught again, working unsafely, he will be fired.
And we’re all afraid of our wives. Something really simple like that. I think it’s a good idea, right?
I think these are cool ideas. Cool messages. Really making safety personal. I love that when you talk, you often talk together, share your story from the two sides, the perspective, because I think that element, like you said in teams of your journey, but also your journey together in teams of what it means for loved ones. I think it’s a very important message for people to hear as well, right?
With all the 32 surgeries who was in the waiting room and you took care of them after they got home, you don’t think about those kinds of things until it’s too late.
When you are on board. When you started the work, what was the experience that you got from onboarding, from setting the tone, from addressing kind of some of the expectations of how you work here and what could have been better?
Had a really good safety program, actually.
Yeah. One of the people I hurt the most was our safety guy. He did everything possible. We had forklift training, respirator, fall protection. We went through all the safety. There wasn’t anything that they could have done unless I got caught and fired me. And they fired me.
He just never got caught.
People ask me, did your fault protection fail? I go, no, I did. Our safety guy was there that day. I had two safety meetings that day. I don’t know what to say, but I feel really bad for the safety guru. After I got hurt, he snuck under the caution tape the next day and grabbed all my clothes that was cut off, and he grabbed my safety harness buckle that the fireman cut off. He put that on his desk for 21 years.
Oh, my goodness.
And it’s like, get rid of it, and we still argue he thinks it’s his fault. It’s like, no, it’s my fault. But there’s nothing they could have done except fire me.
They actually had a very advanced safety program for that year for 19, 95, 25 years ago. It was comparable to the ones that they have. Now, there was a lot less safety back then, but that particular company did that comment about there goes our effort safety record. That was one individual that was the only person that was negative during that time. The company was very supportive and the owners were supportive. And the safety guru, we still meet with him, but he teams up every time he sees it.
And I had to ask, was it cool or neat watching me fall? No, the fall wasn’t bad, but the sound of your body hitting the concrete is what got to him.
Your friend tried to stop you. Is there anything that he could have done to convince you to wear the harness?
No. You are not going to wear it no matter what. Even if he says, get off this job or wear the harness.
Yeah, I had all my fault protection on me. I had buckled everything, but I just chose not to use it, right? I didn’t get scared too often, but a couple of times I didn’t feel like close to an edge and gave me a little queasy, and I would hook up. But besides that, I wouldn’t.
You put your harness on. Why would you put your harness on? Because I’ve heard these many times as well. Somebody has it on but won’t clip it in.
I think, probably just because it’s required and they have to get it inspected at the beginning of the job.
So, at the end of the day, but also, I think if I’m hearing correctly when the supervisor was there, it’s easier to show I’ve gotten tied in. I’m okay.
I wish I could help you more or say something that would fix people. But I do believe if I would have been in that last safety meeting and had a crippled person like me come up, talk about messing his pants, peanuts, pants falling out of beds, falling out of the wheelchair in your face type person. I do believe that that would have made me think a little bit more that I don’t want to go through this. Sure, because I thought if you break your back, the one thing that happens is you can’t walk and you save money on shoes.
That’s all I thought was. But I didn’t realize about the bladder infections, yeast infection, shoulder joints, wrist, back surgeries. I’m going to die ten to 15 years earlier than most. At the rate I’m going, I have not owned a left shoulder for almost two years. Three years. But I’m still functioning in a wheelchair. Only one person has that answer. How can I function without a shoulder? But that day everything was just right for me to fall. Everything lined up.
I really appreciate you sharing a story. I think sharing that message just like you said, Russ, in teams of getting people to reflect it could happen to me. The same could happen to me, hopefully makes more people rethink pause and choose to take that extra step to stay safe. So, I really appreciate all that you do in this space. Russell. Laurel, if somebody is interested in hearing your story, sharing that story with their teams, how can they get in touch with you?
YoungstromSafety.Com. Also. We have a Youngstrom Safety Facebook page and Laurel Youngstrom on LinkedIn. Also, Youngstrom Safety on LinkedIn.
Well, it’s easy. Actually, you can probably just Google us. I think we’re the only.
And there’s videos and so forth. So, I really appreciate you sharing your story. I know it’s a tough story to share. It’s a very hard, wrenching story to listen to hear, but I appreciate what you’re doing to try to make a difference in other people’s lives as well. So, thank you.
The day before yesterday is getting tailgated and I’m like so I pulled over and let the truck go around me and started driving. And then I got cut off by a lady. And then it was my breaking point until I saw a sign that said Baby on board and I backed off immediately.
Sometimes thinking about somebody else’s family can help you too, to maybe be safer driving or otherwise.
Thank you. I really appreciate you sharing your story and really sharing from the heart in teams of what happened, what transpired? Because the story you shared. I’ve heard so many times in teams of it’s not going to happen to me. I can do it. I’ll be okay. And we’re in the hardness, but not tying down all things I’ve heard unless the supervisor shows up and then magically, it’s all tied in. So, appreciate you sharing that story. It’s unfortunately not the first time I’ve heard it something similar like that, but working at heights is really dangerous.
I really appreciate you sharing your story and it’s a very heart-wrenching story to listen. Really appreciate it. Thank you.
Thank you. And also, too is you doing a really good job interviewing this just to let you know. Seriously good.
I appreciate it.
Thank you so much for having me here.
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The Safety Guru with Eric Michrowski
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ABOUT THE GUEST
Laurel and Russ are the husband-and-wife founders of Youngstrom Safety. For over twenty years they have been reaching out to audiences of all industries, moving safety from their heads to their hearts. They do this by encouraging listeners to think about how an accident would impact their loved ones. Russ (a work-related paraplegic) and Laurel are safety advocates and keynote speakers. They are available to share their powerful story (two different perspectives) about personal accountability in safety at meetings, conferences, trainings, and job sites throughout the country (in-person and virtually). They have spoken to tens of thousands of workers in 29 states. From onsite, in the back of a pickup truck, to huge conference centers, their message is always the same – being unsafe is selfish! You can find them at www.youngstromsafety.com