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In this episode, we have a heartfelt conversation with Bernie and his wife Sheila Inman as they recount the events that led to a tragic incident that left Bernie with burns in over 70% of his body and rendered a quadriplegic. They share their powerful message of “safety starts with awareness – awareness starts with you”, while Sheila shares her heartbreaking experience as a loved one confronted by her husband’s life-altering incident. Tune in to listen to their moving messages!
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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 Ops and 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, Bernie, and Sheila Inman. Bernie is a survivor 28 years ago of a critical workplace incident. He’s now turned into a critically acclaimed motivational speaker around safety. So, Bernie and Sheila, love to have you on the podcast. Love. If you could maybe share your story a little bit, we can start getting started there.
Well, thanks for having us, Eric. It’s a very much a privilege for both of us. 28 years ago, I was employed in the oil and gas sector as a production operator. And you know what started out like any other day, perfectly normal, ended up in a world of grief after an inadvertent Slipper trip resulted in a prolonged exposure to methanol or methyl alcohol as a product, a chemical that we injected into our pipelines, et cetera, for freeze protection.
Right. Tell me a little bit because I understand you were out for a very long time. So, tell me a little bit about what happened and how that actually happened.
Because I’ve got no recollection of the entire incident or the ship leading up to this incident. All I can really speak about is in terms of contributing factors is what we’ve learned from the investigation process. And it starts with, in all likelihood, a slip or a trip which resulted in a fall, subsequent blow to the head, which I didn’t have a hard hat covering it because of complacency creeping into my day-to-day routine. That blow to the head. After I collapsed in this building, I came to be resting on top of a methanol injection pump. And the discharge end of this particular pump was in a lever style configuration. And unfortunately, the weight of my leg and boot was enough to crack that valve open. And from that point in time on, every stroke the pump was taking was discharging raw methanol not only onto the floor in this little building, but eventually onto my boots, my clothing, eventually skin contact. And that’s where they found me approximately 12 hours later.
Oh, my goodness. That’s a very long time. And how did they end up finding you at that point? Because normally you would expect for somebody working alone that there would have been some protocols to jump in and realize why is it that you haven’t called in?
Yeah. Unfortunately, in that time frame back in the 1990s, it wasn’t uncommon for us to be working alone for extended periods of time. There were no calling procedures or anything of that nature. My wife was the one who actually initiated the panic button. And that only occurred when she came home from work and found our home empty when I should have been there. I firmly believe in the value of keeping our coworkers or loved ones informed as to where we’re at, what we’re doing, and at any given time, roughly what time we’re going to be home. I always tried to do that. And when it didn’t happen that night, Sheila initiated the search. My co-worker went out looking at approximately twelve midnight. And unfortunately, it was the last location that he checked. Our field was fairly extensive. It included a central gas plant in approximately 75 km of pipelines and field locations feeding the site. And as it sometimes goes, it was the last location that he looked because it was the least one that you would expect something bad to happen. And to all of our horror, that’s the one that got me.
Sheila, maybe tell me from your standpoint you come home, and Bernie is not there. Tell me what your experience through this was.
Okay, I come home, and Bernie is not there. And it’s not unusual because he does work late sometimes. He didn’t have a phone back then. We didn’t even have cell phones. He just had a phone at the plant site. So of course, I came home. I waited a while. I called the plant site. At the time, he had an XJ radio. I tried calling that. I called his co-worker right away to say he wasn’t home. I did a phone search for Bernie. I called the hockey rink, I called his friends, I called his co-worker. And by midnight, when Bernie didn’t come home, I realized something was really wrong. And I encouraged all to go look for Bernie because he had to be out there somewhere, right?
And so that’s where all I think you said went out on a search. So, tell me what happens from here.
Al locates me. He’s somewhat surprised to find my pickup parked on site. The vehicle was running, the door was open. He assumed that I would probably come out of that building and inquire as to what he was actually doing there. Obviously, that didn’t happen. And upon entry, he found me unconscious in the building. Check my vital signs, got me out of the toxic environment, called for emergency services and began got me into his pickup and met the ambulance part way to the hospital.
From your standpoint, Sheila, tell me about what’s the experience from an injury like this, from an incident that occurs like this.
You know what? It’s just when something like this happens, it’s so unexpected as all injuries are. And it’s doubly hard when it’s a preventable workplace incident because it could be prevented. And Bernie could have been found a lot sooner. Definitely things that the company changed after Bernie was hurt to make the environment a better place. And we’re happy about that. We’re happy that things are better now, and that’s sometimes how it happens. An incident has to happen before you realize what needs to be changed.
Ideally, it doesn’t, right? Ideally, an organization is always looking at where could something go wrong. Like in this particular case, somebody who’s working alone have some form of a call out protocol check in protocol so that if it’s taking longer than it should, I proactively start taking steps.
Oh, absolutely. And unfortunately, at the time, there wasn’t even a work call in procedure for Bernie’s workplace. You know what? It was something I know Bernie had thought about and had talked about it in safety meetings, but it had never come about.
You mentioned it, and even that didn’t trigger a reflection to say, maybe we need to close the gap of this front.
Well, you know what? I think it was standard back then in the workplace industry. In the oil and gas industry, it was not common practice to have a call-in procedure.
So, let’s get into some of the key contributing factors to this incident. Tell me a little bit about how it happened and some of the things that could be done to prevent this from occurring.
Maybe I should start with saying that we took about seven years in recovery before I was approached to talk about this. And when we agreed to do something of this nature, Sheila and I really sat back and tried to re-evaluate again for the uptight time because we’ve been down that path hundreds of times. When you wake up thinking you’re in the middle of a nightmare and you realize it’s absolutely true, four elements really came to the forefront, and it started with policy and procedure was aware of a hard hat. It’s a disregard to company policy. They spend millions of dollars on PPE for my benefit. I didn’t wear it. Obviously, safety equipment, personal protective equipment is key in any safe work environment. Communication or lack thereof obviously played a huge role in the severity of this incident. I was exposed to raw methyl alcohol. If I was out of that building in 2 hours or 3 hours, I probably still walk. I’m not a quadriplegic. I’m not burnt over 70% of my body. So, the breakdown in communication was paramount. And then probably the most critical one that I think crept into my world. And I think it’s very easy to creep into anybody’s world is this issue of complacency.
And it caught up with me because this was the simplest, ill-equipped facility we had in our fleet. In other words, there’s no heat generating devices, no electrical components. It’s sweet natural gas, and you perform the same tasks day in, day out, without suffering any adverse effects. And I got comfortable, let my guard down. And that’s the nature of complacency. I just don’t know if there’s anything more dangerous out there than complacency because it happens and you’re not even aware of it.
Yeah, that’s exactly the case. So often that’s what I hear is I did it 100 times, maybe in a way. I knew it wasn’t the safest way. And then I started realizing that’s, okay, I can get away. Nothing’s happened. And then it became complacent to the risk of the hazard. So, what are some of the things that could have as an organization, as leaders could have helped from a complacency standpoint to help reduce the likelihood that people do become complacent around some of those hazards?
That’s the age-old question. And that’s why Sheila and I, when we do a live presentation, it’s entitled Safety Starts With Awareness. Awareness Starts with you because there are steps that an individual could take, the Corporation could take. We can all take because we’re all part of that team.
Yes. And it starts with learning from incidents, regardless of how menial they might appear to be. I mean, I bumped out of we never thought that that would end up being a life-threatening injury is the complacency. I don’t think the valve was, I think, walking into a building that I considered to not have any harmful contributing factors to it. That’s the scary part of it. So, complacency, you bring in outside workers, you bring in speakers, you train your staff, you bring in Propulo.com, you bring in corporations like this, and all of it is going to enhance the ability to keep people aware and not let that complacency factor come into play. It’s kind of like wearing a seat belt. We know it works and sometimes we don’t wear it and we know what the results can be.
I would think it’s similar to when you were talking about the PPE. You weren’t wearing a hard hat. How did that set in? Was that just the first time it had happened, or was that something you kind of felt you didn’t need to wear?
Wonderful question, Eric. This particular site where I was found, and this incident occurred was very quiet. There was no need for me to wear a hard hat that had hearing protection attached to it.
And because of my belief that there was nonhazardous operation in this little building I just entered, didn’t even think twice. It was a long shift. I’ve been on callouts previously, but I take the opportunity to go home that direction that afternoon, ensure that this facility would produce in a normal, stable fashion not only because it’s productivity, but its accuracy of the product. It wasn’t flowing normally, and I just didn’t even think twice, just opened the door, saw things were unstable, entered the building and never made it out of there.
With taking five minutes, people take five, just reflect. Would that have made a difference? Right. If you had walked in, looked at what are the hazards like normally you’ve got a tailboard. If you’ve got a crew you’re working with, would that have helped kind of understand what hazards might be present before jumping in?
Oh, certainly, yes. I’m a firm believer that as individuals, we’re smart. Common sense goes a long way as well. I also think it’s very critical that the employee understands that it’s perfectly okay for them to take a step back. If it doesn’t look right and it doesn’t smell right, just take a step back, survey the situation, and then act accordingly. And that’s something that I didn’t do.
And I think it’s too often we jump in, assuming the task is as we had originally planned, and we show up and something’s changed. Right. So, it could be something as benign as it started raining and I done my tailboard. I prepare for the job before the rain came. But the rain might introduce a new hazard into the equation or whatever else might show up. And it doesn’t look the way it should.
Oh, absolutely. And it’s changing and evolving all the time from a process standpoint, from an environmental standpoint, from a managerial, logistical standpoint. There’s lots of factors, and I’m confident that people have the ability to manage those. And it takes an effort, and that’s an effort that’s absolutely necessary. And it demonstrates a commitment to the employees.
This episode of the Safety Guru podcast is brought to you by Propulo Consulting, the leading safety and safety culture advisory firm. Whether you are looking to assess your safety culture, develop strategies to level up your safety performance, introduce human performance capabilities, reenergize your BBS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions. Propulo has you covered. Visit email@example.com.
And so, both of you often go speak to organizations, to teams, to leaders around the incident and really sharing some ideas. What are some of the things that the key messages you really try to impart to team members to reduce the likelihood of them actually having an incident?
From a leader perspective, I think it’s so absolutely critical that the personal commitment to the workers is first, not last. And I believe that leaders and employees like they take it personally because it is personally. You can’t sustain an incident like this. Watch the ripple effect go through the Corporation, your co-workers, and your colleagues, those you become close with when you work side by side over time to achieve the goals put before you. It’s common to develop friendships and bonds, and something like this happens. And that ripple effect extends from a monetary perspective through increased WCB premiums, et cetera, to the human aspects, which is the horrible feeling that everybody had when I went down.
Right? Absolutely. What are some of the other lessons for leaders around it? Because I think in this particular case, you’ve talked about a few really, in terms of really as a leader, I can reinforce certain themes around complacency. I can drive a messaging around, take five. I can drive a messaging around, really assess the hazards that it’s okay not to jump in if something doesn’t feel right, doesn’t feel safe. I can start thinking about areas of potential failure points around what happens if I’ve got a loan worker who’s working alone, and something goes wrong. How do I make sure that I check in to know that something’s happened, not rely on a loved one to realize that somebody hasn’t shown up?
It is. It’s a broad spectrum out there. I think it’s critical, absolutely essential that the leaders understand the landscape of what Safety Excellence looks like and that they can reiterate that and clearly articulate that to their staff. Because sometimes actions speaker louder than words. And when it’s coming from your high-level leaders, I can only tell you from my perspective what it would have meant to me to have that feeling. And I can tell you honestly.
I didn’t have so the leaders didn’t reinforce at the time the messaging that safety was critical. It wasn’t something that was drilled in on a daily basis at the time.
We’re productivity based and costs are in check. Costs are controlled, costs are scrutinized. Unfortunately, at the time, Safety Excellence, then or now, it comes at a cost. This is something that needs to be talked about at the highest levels because this is where budgets are considered. This is where budgets are approved. And the day of a dividing line between productivity and safety that’s long gone. I mean, they go hand in hand together, and it needs to be like that. And its money well spent because it’s an investment in your employees and it demonstrates commitment. That’s huge.
Yeah. And I think that’s exactly the key message is even if at the C-suite level, I’m talking about safety, I’m reinforcing the importance as a value. This is how we do our work. That goes a long way. Budgets obviously matter, but the messaging and the consistency of that message from an executive to a front-line team member or frontline supervisor has to be there.
It has to be there. When you consider these corporations, organizations that we’re all one teams, we’re all working to obtain the same goal. And there’s nothing more disruptive, in my opinion, from a monetary perspective, from a human perspective, then being near achieving those goals collectively with the team and then watching it go away because of a preventable incident, it just takes the wind right out of your sales. From the most upper level, right down to the guys sweeping the floor, we’re all in this together.
I’ll just quickly jump into it here quick. I can appreciate that I’m an important part of the puzzle when it comes to the Bernie inventory, because when injury happens, it doesn’t just affect the injured worker. Bernie got hurt that day, but it affected me. It affected our marriage. It affected our kids, our families, our friends. The ripple effect of injury is huge. And the decisions you make affect everybody around you. I usually when we talk at a presentation, I let everybody know this. So, I want everyone listening to your podcast to know this as well, that everybody listening is a VIP. And I guarantee there is somebody waiting for you to come home, because we are all sons and daughters. Maybe we’re mums and dads, grandmas, Grandpa’s, aunts, uncles, friends, pet owners, whatever. I guarantee that there’s somebody waiting for you to come home. And I really feel that it’s almost a responsibility to come home safely to your loved ones every time because they’re counting on you. I’m really shy by nature, and it’s really hard for me to talk about Bernie’s incident and basically the hardest time of our lives. So, what I did was I wrote up home, and it was just a way for me to express and get out there what I wanted to say.
And I’m going to share a portion of it with you right now.
Yes. Thank you.
Okay. It’s called The Importance of Safety. Safety starts with awareness. Awareness starts with you. It’s something we all have to learn. I’ll tell you a story that’s true. On the 24 January, my sweetie went to work with a kiss and a hug and a wave and a smirk. We had the world by the fuel. Your future so bright? Our carefully laid plans changed forever. That night, Bernie was found all alone, unconscious, he lay in a pool of methanol. What had happened that day from the stress of it all, I’m lucky to say my mind has played tricks. I don’t remember much from those days, but I remember the feeling. I remember it well. The heartache, the tears have I defended. Okay, so I’m going to stop there. But I just want to share the very last part of my poem, and it says, My soul is just fine. I want all to see it’s filled to the brim. I’m so lucky to be me. I guess I just want to share how we found happiness. And one of the most important things is to be grateful. And it’s easy, like in the ICU unit or the Bern unit or rehab, to look around and find someone worse off than us.
And I would say a little prayer of thankful for Bernie in my life. I’m thankful he made it. I’m thankful that he’s a great dad and he has the opportunity to do that. I’m thankful that we get to talk with you, Eric. And you know what? If you’re thankful, you can have an amazing life.
So, Sheila, thank you so much for sharing that. I think the power of this is really safety is something that’s very personal and that was incredibly powerful in terms of the story you shared and your experience through it. And I think it’s interesting because just a few hours ago, I was actually talking to some leaders exactly about this is making safety more personal. Sometimes it’s about procedures and thou shalt do this and books and stuff I need to tick boxes on. But at the end of the day, safety is something that impacts a person, a family, a loved one, like you said. And everybody’s got that. And it’s really thinking about how do I really make it personal? So, people choose to take part in it, realize their part in it, and also the company’s part in it. So, thank you so much for sharing that, Sheila.
I could sort of chime in on this, too. It’s raw experience from the family and the spousal perspective, and that sometimes doesn’t come to the forefront as workers and employees. When we make decisions, sometimes it’s easy to cut the corner, take the chance, and not even realize or recognize the type of impact you could have on your loved ones. And the original prognosis for me was a limited chance of survival and supposedly to be brain damaged. The point to being institutionalized and blind. This is horrible things that Sheila just stood before me eleven months prior to that and said in sickness and in health and good times.
So, this is going to reflect in the nature of what this incident meant to Sheila. Even though 28 years has passed, I always got to think of what it’s going to mean to those that are at home waiting for you to come home safe and sell.
And I think that’s an important message because sometimes even in companies, we don’t talk about it in that way. We talk about it in terms of rules and procedures as opposed to why this really matters. So, thank you both for sharing your story. You present together, share presentations around safety, around your story. How can somebody get in touch with you if they wanted to know more? And share your story within the organization?
You can reach out to us through our firstname.lastname@example.org. There’s telephone contact information on there. And we’ve had the privilege, the honor of talking to different industries throughout North American, different parts of the world. Although my injury occurred in a different country than some in a different environment, different industry, the playing field levels itself when it comes to injury. And once the injuries happen, we learn from it the same way, regardless of the industry.
Sheila Bernie, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast. Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for bringing your story to a lot of other people to reflect on how can I stay safer, how as a leader, can I influence my organization to make sure this never happens to another family?
Thank you for listening to the Safety Guru on C-suite Radio. Leave a legacy. Distinguish yourself from the pack. Grow your success, capture the hearts and minds of your team teams fuel your future. Come back in two weeks for the next episode or listen to our sister show with the Ops Guru Eric Michrowski.
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