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“Safety systems and procedures mean nothing if people don’t implement them.” In this episode, Dan Plexman shares how a culture of production in the workplace led to an incident that changed his life. Complacency often enters into the minds of team members when the focus is on completing tasks rather than completing tasks safely. This National Electrical Safety Month, Dan is emphasizing the importance of team-based safety culture. Tune in!
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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 Dan Plexman, who is a workplace safety speaker and life safety advocate. Dan, welcome to the show.
Good morning, Eric. Thank you very much for having me. Great to be here. Thank you.
Sounds good. So, I’d love to hear a little bit about your story, the story that got you to become a workplace safety speaker.
All right. Well, the process of becoming a professional speaker on workplace safety. I think this role is handed down to too many other workplace safety speakers, not by choice. It’s just something that happened to them. And they’re sharing their story to change the world of safety. And the same thing happened to me. I was injured in a workplace accident about 14 years ago. And after realizing I wasn’t going to be able to return to work at the same capacity, I decided to get into safety and started doing some safety training, which I had been already taking safety training since the early 90s or the late 90s. I mean, so one of the safety courses I was taking was to train the trainer and teach the teacher. And part of the course was to do a ten-minute presentation from the class. And obviously I spoke about my workplace accident. And the ten minutes turned into 30 or 40. And then the teacher brought me down to the Chancellor’s office and said, this guy has to be our keynote speaker at our next safety conference. And three months later, I was in front of 500 people or 500 safety professionals telling my story.
And I guess six, seven years later, it’s still going strong. And it’s been a great experience. There’s so many things that this experience has given me. It’s taken away a lot. But you can’t really look at the bad things in life. You have to look at things with a positive matter. And without this experience, I never would have met my wife. So that’s one thing that I really, truly cherish about being injured. And that’s how I became a speaker about my injury and my accident. My story and my story being injured in a workplace accident. It starts off like any typical Northern Canadian kid. I was a construction worker. I was raised by a working household. My mother was a nurse. My father was a construction guy. As a child, I went with my dad on the job sites. He’s a Pipe liner. And from the time I was about nine or ten years old, I was driving around the big trucks with him on the construction sites, and I really enjoyed it. And as a teenager, he was able to get me working on some boom trucks, like swamping being like a Raker on trucks and crane trucks.
And I never looked back after that. When I became a graduated high school, I was just a construction guy and I worked in all different types of construction. I typically chase, like pulp and paper mill construction, oil sands production. Up in Alberta, I did a short, short stint in oil rigs, and then I picked up an election apprenticeship working out in the oil sands and took a job back home a few years later in Ontario with a lecture utility company. I worked for them for about three years, and I wasn’t your typical apprentice. I started the electrical apprenticeship probably around age 32. So, at the age of 35, when I was injured. When I was injured, I was a full-grown man. I wasn’t fresh to construction, but I was fresh to the electrical industry. But all the construction job sites I’d been on had the exact same machinery, the exact same type of work. The only difference was now we’re working under a live electrical line and we’re putting this live electrical apparatus together and building it. And I love the job. I love the guys I worked with. And to cut to the short end of the chase, as far as my accident goes, I was working in a man left by myself.
I was about 20ft in the air, and I was working under live lines. I was doing a simple, simple job. All I had to do was tighten a few nuts and bolts. Okay, my accident happened on a Tuesday and the week before, we had erected these electrical towers, these steel structures to Mount some of our electrical apparatus. And when I showed up at work the next after the weekend, that was my job. Just go up there and tighten the feed nuts and bolts, and we’re good, and then I can go to the next job. When I accepted the work orders, I didn’t think anything of it. It was very common for me as an apprentice to be working under live lines and to be working by myself in the man lift. And I knew at my previous employer we weren’t even allowed to walk a man left without having a ground crew or another person in there with you. And I had complained about this to the employer I was working with this actually utility employer. And I said, like, you know, I wasn’t even allowed to do this job at my old job. And now I’m expecting to do it alone as an apprentice.
And basically, they said, well, maybe you should go back to your old employer. And I just took that as out of sort of thing. Wow. And this is probably a couple of years before I was injured. And then as the years went on because I only worked there for three years before I was injured, still doing my apprenticeship. And I complained, not really complained, but I brought this up again to my safety rep. And the funny things with the safety rep, with bringing this up to the safety rep. I was actually the safety rep for when we went out when our crew split up. So, I was like the field safety representative. And when they asked me to fill this role, I said, Great, when do I get the training? And I was actually laughed at, and I was told, this job is strictly a paper roll. Sign your name here and don’t rock the boat.
When I brought these concerns to my safety rep, who had said this previously, I kind of knew it was going to fall on deaf ears. So, I made sure there was a group of people around, which included my Superintendent, my lead hand, my Union steward, the safety rep. And I said, I shouldn’t be operating this machine without supervision. It’s like illegal to work as an apprentice under live lines. It’s just how it works. And I was laughed at, and I was asked, what are you, a man or a mouse?
Yeah. And that’s exactly what I said, are you a man or a mouse? We’ve been doing this job for like 27, 30 years. Some of the guys have been there for over 30 years. We’ve been doing this job this way and for you to come here and tell us how to do it, it’s just not going to work that way. And I wasn’t intimidated in a way where I was physically intimidated or I felt like less of a man, I actually felt guilty where I just wasn’t fitting in. And that was sort of the culture of the crew that I was on, where people weren’t rude with each other and to push these unsafe work practices. It was just how it was. And it was kind of like, you’re not mad enough. Well, you’re kind of feeling like you aren’t mad enough, so you just kind of follow suit. And that’s what I did. And I had done that my entire life. I had done that my entire life. I always just accepted the job and I did what I was told. And being a good, loyal, hardworking employee was instilled in me. And that was the attitude I went to work with.
I wanted to produce, I wanted to fit in, and I wanted to be productive. Even. Like when I was 17 years old, working with my dad on one of those boom trucks, the first time I ever operated a chainsaw was with my dad when I was 17 on the job site. And he never gave me any instruction how to operate that he just gave it to me and said, fire this thing up, climb up on the trailer and cut the chunk off the end of this wood that’s sticking off the side of the trailer, so we don’t hit anything Whizzer driving. And I was 10ft up in the air, hanging on the trailer with one hand while I operated, the chainsaw with the other stretched wide open. And that was how I was taught from the age of 17 by my dad. And that’s normal. That was normal to me. And that’s how he learned. That’s how everybody learned back then. So, I really can’t blame, like put blame or responsibility on my fellow workers and just the poor safety culture that I came from that I was working with on-the-job site when I was injured, because that was the same culture that I was raised in a culture of production rather than a culture of safety.
And that’s unfortunately quite common as a teams in a lot of organizations. The focus of reinforcement is on get it done as opposed to get it done safely.
Exactly. And another human factor with my I don’t know if it’s actually a human factor, but just another statistical factor with my injury and my incident being a typical construction crew. Like you said, it’s all about production. And typically, most construction crews are running a little lean on the manpower just because when the jobs are lean, you don’t want to have to go through the layoff process when there’s too many guys. So typically, my experience, they run a little lean on the lean side just to prevent any layoffs when things get busier or slower. And that was an issue we were having where we were always running lean, but there was just so much work to be done. We were always running short and working with a composite crew. There’s electricians, there’s carpenters, laborers, machine operators, that sort of thing. And working farther up north, where our job location was, there’s not the massive amount of workers in some of these other big utility yards and job sites. So just as sometimes you’re running lean with manpower, you’re also running lean with machinery, you’re running lean with just the general tools. Sometimes you have to just do with what you have, and sometimes you make do with what you have, and the job gets done.
Nobody is hurt. And then you go to the next job just because nobody was hurt and there was no injuries or incidents, no time loss and the jobs got done, it doesn’t mean that they were done correctly or even done safely. And I think that complacency was a big issue with my job where everybody was doing this for years and years before I was hurt, but I just happened to be the guy that was hurt.
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 us www.propolo.com.
Tell me a little bit more about the culture on that crew. Because you talked about production over safety. The feedback you got when you identify some safety opportunities was to shut you down. Your quote around or your man or a mouse is horrifying to me. What was unique and how did that crew evolve to have that culture? And were there some signs that as a leader in the organization, maybe it could have seen that something was not quite off? I’m assuming this wasn’t the culture of the whole company at the time.
No, that’s the thing with my experience with this. And I’ve come to learn that almost every part of any job site, any accident, anything, it always involves people. You can have as many company policies and procedures, and you could have as many Unions Constitution, rules and regulations and safety protocol to follow. But it all means absolutely nothing. If people don’t enforce it and implement it, follow them. And that was the issue with my crew. The company we worked for was a huge electric utility company. There is never a shortage of materials. There’s never a shortage of money to be thrown at all the jobs we were doing. There’s no reason to be writing so lean and no reason to cut any corners. All of that was in place. All of that was there. The men, the leaders, myself, I just chose not to use them and not to follow these Propulo.com and not to enforce it. I truly believe personal safety is the most important part of every aspect of any kind of safety measure. If your personal safety isn’t number one for everybody, there’s never going to be anybody. There’s always a lot of accidents.
It’s just how it works. And I really wish I would have enforced my right to refuse dangerous work. I should have, but I didn’t. My employer, the guys that I worked with, they should have enforced these rules, but they didn’t. I should have gone home that night, but I didn’t. Instead, I accepted those dangerous work orders. I accepted the unrealistic job expectations. And then I went to the hospital for three months. I’ve had over 30 major surgeries, 100 little ones. And there’s real consequences to not following these protocols that are in place and ensuring your personal safety.
So, when you speak about safety and you speak to team members, what’s your core message really around? Taking that personal ownership for safety?
Like I said, even though I knew what I was doing was wrong, and even though I complained about it before, I did not get the recognition and I didn’t get the respect, the recognition and things did not. The things I was asking for and talking about. They weren’t recognized or even acknowledged. So, the culture has to start from everyone. And if you’re having a hard time instilling your own personal safety, take another step up the rung. Go higher. I went from my lead hand, my Union steward, my safety rep, I went as high as the Superintendent and the Superintendent actually agreed with my lead hand when I said, or when they said, what are you, a man, or a mouse? Because it was the lead hand who said, what are you, a man, or a mouse? Then my field Foreman, the general Foreman, and then the Superintendent all agreed and said, yeah, I have to agree with that. So, at that point, I really felt there was no I couldn’t go any higher. I was talking to the Superintendent. Who else could I go to?
There’s much more higher rungs than that. There’s probably five or six or ten other superintendents in other areas that I could have emailed or called or anything. I could have called the Ministry of labor. I could have called my local MP. I could have done something, but I didn’t. I just wanted to fit in. I just wanted to get the job done and I wanted to be part of the crew. I really liked working with these guys. I respected these men. They were my friends.
And their culture of production led to my life altering accident. It changed my life completely. But I don’t have any blame, or I don’t blame anybody because there’s no Mal intentions, just things happen. And sometimes the best intentions have the worst outcomes. And having a culture of production is just not acceptable nowadays.
So, you’ve raised the issue at a fairly senior level, Superintendent level, and everybody echoed the same message to me. There’s also an element that I got to wonder, if I’m an executive and I’m running the business, how do I find pockets like this where maybe people don’t feel comfortable speaking up, don’t feel comfortable raising issues, and where you have more of a production of production orientation as opposed to safe production focus.
The intimidation factor has to be removed. That’s how I see it, yeah. When I was intimidated on the job, I was a six-foot tall £229 and I was injured. I was a big, strong, hardworking guy and I wasn’t easily physically intimidated. I walked confidently and I wasn’t really scared of a lot of things. But physical intimidation is a real big difference when you’re dealing, like mental intimidation, emotional intimidation. That’s what I felt because I don’t really feel. I didn’t feel if I look back on it now, I do not think I was mentally or physically intimidated when I was asked to do this job, but I was emotionally intimidated. I was made to feel like I was not worthy. I was made to feel like I was letting the crew down. I was made to feel like I just wasn’t fitting in and I was the youngest guy in the crew. I was 35 years old, and I was the youngest guy in the crew by at least ten years. Everybody else was at least 45 to 65 years old and they had all been working there for at least 20 years. I was the first guy that they hired in over 13 years on the crew as an apprentice.
So, the intimidation I felt was emotional intimidation because I just felt that I wasn’t fitting in. And if that was removed, if things were a little bit softer rather than men trying to be so hard and rough, if that makes sense, I think things could have changed, right?
Yeah. So, thank you for sharing your story, Dan. I’d love to dive into some of the human factors that were present when the incident happened and hear a little bit about thoughts around what were some of the countermeasures that could have reduced the impact of those human factors, for sure.
My personal human factors are the number one thing that were involved with my accident. And the timeline before my accident is just the perfect recipe for an accident in any situation. You see, like I said, I was injured on a Tuesday. Like I said, I wasn’t there on Monday, and I took the Monday off and I took the Monday off because I was selling my rental house. And during the weekend I had like three apartments that I was painting and doing a bunch of renovations to get prepared for selling the house. And my weekend was so busy, and you also have to remember my home to the job site was a six-hour drive. So, I worked until Thursday. I came home on Friday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday I worked and then Monday I made the deal to sell the house and then the plan was for me to show up on work on Tuesday at noon and get back to work. So that’s what I did. I drove to work the morning of my incident, so I left about five in the morning. I drove for 6 hours, and I stopped at my hotel, I rested for a couple of hours and then I went to the job site.
I remember actually driving to the job site thinking I was just so tired. My mind was racing with all the things that I had done on the weekend and my mind was racing with all the things I still had to do. When I came home on the next weekend and my mind wasn’t on the job, it was about my home life. I was stressed, I was busy, I was tired. And when I arrived on the job site I was asked to go back to the man, lift you’re on before the weekend and finish installing the bolts and those steel structures. And then you can hop in your car and drive 200 km to the next job site and meet the rest of the crew. My electrical work instructions were given to me by the Carpenter Foreman. There was not a single other electrician in the yard. When I was injured, I was by myself, and I was still an apprentice working under live lines in a man left without any ground crew, no signalman or anybody. And I accepted those work orders. That’s how we did things. And like I said, I was really tired, and my mind wasn’t on the job.
So, like I said, I accepted the work orders. And then I went to the hospital for three months. And my mindset is I truly believe it’s the main reason why I was injured, because as soon as I got on the job, actually, I put work boots on. I went to the man lift, I got on that man lift, and then I safely proceeded to do my job. And all I needed to do at the end of the job was just to inspect my work. So, for you to inspect my work, I had to drive that man left with five or six inches one way just so I get a better view. And like I said, my mind wasn’t on the job when I started the work. So, I didn’t do safety circle check of the man left I was working on. It’s one of the first things you always do on any job site when you’re operating any machine, you do a safety circle check. But I didn’t. I was just too busy in my mind thinking of what was going on at home.
And I was also just thinking of getting a simple job done and hopping in my car and driving 2 hours to the next job to meet the rest of the crew. And as I said, when I was in that man left, I just had to drive it maybe five or six inches, maybe eight inches one way. And because I didn’t do that safety circle check, I didn’t notice that that man left was parked exactly where I had left it the weekend before, but it had actually been moved, and it was parked exactly where I had left it. But it was parked 180 degrees opposite of how I had left it. And I didn’t notice that because obviously, I didn’t do that safety circle check, and I didn’t walk the work area if I would have noticed that the machine was parked 188 degrees opposite. So, if you haven’t operated a man left before, sometimes, depending on the machine, when you spin that machine 180 degrees opposite, the control levers actually go opposite as well. So left is right, and right is left. So, when I move that control lever, expecting that man left to go to the right, it actually went to the left.
And right there, that is when my life changed forever. The sparks, the fire, the bright light. It consumed me. The steel bucket, the steel man lift that I was on. It caught on paper. It caught on fire just like paper. And I was a golf. I was in a cage of flames. That’s what I was. And I really was not there mentally because I was thinking of everything else that was going on at home and I really wish I would have taken the time to do the safety circle check. I really wish I would have walked the work area. I really wish I would have refused the dangerous work orders and instilled my right to refuse dangerous work right.
Another issue that was a big factor in my accident was like I said, I was 20ft up in the air. So, after I was caught on fire, I rolled out of the man left to get away from it to get out of the fire. But instead of falling to the ground, I was stopped, and I was suspended by my safety harness. So, I hung there swinging about 17ft in the air, burning alive until my thick nylon lanyard the safety harness until it burned completely through. Then I fell 20ft to the ground. While I was up there burning alive, I was awake, and I was aware, and I remember all of it. And the carpenters and the machine operators and the laborers from the other side of the yard doing another job. They heard all the noise in the commotion, and they came running towards me. They came running towards me with the best of intentions, but they came running towards me like chickens with their heads cut off. They were so stressed, and it was panic and chaos. No one knew what to do. We had a little bit of safety training in what to do if a man left his stuck sort of thing.
But there was no emergency rescue plan in place and there was no practice emergency rescue plan in place, that’s for sure. There was like nothing. So, when I was burning up there alive, one guy, all they had to do was press a single button to release the machine and I would have come down to the ground. They could have put me out and they could have put the fire out a lot sooner, but they couldn’t do that because they were freaking out. They were not planned; they were not trained and there was no emergency rescue plan in place. Like I said, two other guys are trying to reach me at 17ft with a twelve-footstep ladder. That was the best they could do at the time, and it was the best of intentions, and they did their best, but their best wasn’t good enough because they did not follow the safety protocols. They did not instill the safe work procedures that were set up by the company and set up by the Union. It was humans that failed to follow the rules, safety systems and procedures. They mean nothing if the people do not implement them.
Absolutely agree. Dan thank you very much for sharing a story. If somebody wants to get in touch with you and learn about how you can present your story to others share some of the insights around improving safety outcomes within the team, how can they get in touch with you?
Very easily, danplexman.com that’s my website and you can reach me anytime.
No problem. Just Google my name.
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ABOUT THE GUEST
Dan Plexman is from Thunder Bay, Ontario and is 44 years old. He has worked as a labourer, driver, equipment operator and warehouseman in pipeline, oilsands and general construction since the age of 16.
Starting an electrical apprenticeship in his early 30’s was a natural transition to make, and provided the perfect mix of both familiar and unfamiliar work locations and practices. Dan worked as an apprentice in Alberta and Ontario for a few years, completed a term of trade school in both provinces, and was enjoying working closer to his home town than he had in years when he was seriously injured at work.
September 30, 2008 is the day Dan’s life changed forever.
Working alone and 17′ aloft, the manlift he was operating came in close proximity to live overhead power-lines and an electrical arc flash fire resulted. Receiving 3rd degree burns to 70% of his body before falling those 17′ to the ground left him clinging to life with a 13% chance of surviving and a long road of recovery ahead.
Over 9 years of constant surgery, medical procedures and therapy haven’t been the only focus in his life. Besides taking the courses needed to obtain the National Construction Safety officer designation, and starting the Occupational Health and Safety University education, he also is enjoying an exciting new career as a safety and motivational speaker.
Other than the obvious physical trauma, the subjects of creating a safety culture for the home and workplace, equipment and workplace inspections, demanding safe work procedures, standing up to peer pressure and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are very near to his heart and talking about them proves to be a healing and learning experience for him as well as the audience.
Dan is both honoured and excited to speak with everyone willing to listen and share his experience being seriously injured in a life altering workplace accident.