Select Page

Waking Up to the Dangers of Shortcuts: Powering Up Personal Accountability and Safety Ownership with Theo Venter

Waking Up to the Dangers of Shortcuts: Powering Up Personal Accountability and Safety Ownership

LISTEN TO THE EPISODE: 

ABOUT THE EPISODE

“It’s the buy-in. All the safety systems are there, but they are worth nothing without the buy-in.” Theo Venter, the only known survivor of a 22,000-volt electric shock, joins the podcast this week to share his powerful story and eye-opening message highlighting the inevitable dangers of shortcuts in the workplace. Tune in as Theo describes the psychological aspects that contribute to serious injuries and fatalities and unpacks actionable strategies for mitigating risk and powering up personal accountability and safety ownership in the workplace.

READ THIS EPISODE

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 safety legacy? Your legacy’s success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to have with me Theo Venter, who is an incredible inspirational speaker, but also one of the only people to have ever survived going through 22,000 volts through the heart and 1,200 amp. Unbelievable. Theo, welcome to the show. Glad you’re here. Why don’t we start with your story?

I am even more glad I’m here with you after hearing that what you just said. Sometimes when people say that it just is a different energy when I listen to it and I go, wow, I’m still standing here. Thanks for having me, Eric. Absolutely. I’ll just jump in if that’s okay. I’ll start a little bit further back. Born and raised, you might pick up a slight little accent in my voice, and I know it’s going to be hard to pick up, but it is from South Africa, the Spring rock country. Born and raised over there and then got opportunity to go to Australia and go and practice my trade, which was working on overhead power lines. I guess after about 10 years of working in the same industry, there was this specialized group that came in and they could work on live electrical power lines. So, you put these specialized big gloves and stuff on, and you put them on, and you can work actually on live power lines. So, I was very interested, went for the course and passed it. And then when I came to Australia, that was what brought me over because it was such a specialized trade. I was only here for six months when I set in my ways. My family came over for the last three months and we were now just settling into Australia. And it was a Monday morning. I woke up in the morning and it was just another day to me. I knew exactly what was going on. What was my whole week, what was it going to be? So, I got into my mood, and I jumped in, and I went to work and got to work. And the manager said to me, hey, Theo, he said to me something very strange that morning. He said, look, you got to go fix up this power pole outside of your normal work scope. And he said, I’m calling you in because you are the guy that gets the job done. He says, this is a really… There was an electrical storm. There was a lightning strike over the weekend. The pole got damaged. And he said, this thing is really badly damaged. So, I turned around Eric and I had this little ego boost, pep my stick.

And I said to, we have a three-man crew, I said to my boys, let’s go change the stuff on the truck and the Ute and get some other safety stuff on. And off we go to the Spell poll. And I remember doing a risk assessment that morning without my other two boys in there at the poll, and tick and flick boxes. You’re just a quick tick and flick and you’ve put a few things down. And I didn’t really, really, I wasn’t invested in that. And when the boys came in, we set up and started working on this pole. And my best mate, very good mate of mine, his name is Niko. He was in front of me. He started working on these live wires. And about half an hour in, he got really frustrated. And he said to me, he said, I can’t get this nut off this little 12-millimeter nut. I don’t know if you guys call it three quarter.

Probably.

And I said to him, look, you must be tied. Let me have a go at it. And as soon as I stood right in front of this, and I’ve got to describe it. We’re standing 11 meters in the air. There’s a big steel cross arm in front of me. There are three insulators, which carries the three phases. And I remember, I couldn’t see where this nut sits, and I couldn’t feel it because of the gloves. And I knew that I’m the guy that gets the job done.

Right. You had heard that just before.

Because that just boosted my ego with this thing. And you know what it’s like for a young man.

And I guess at that stage, I thought if I could only put my fingers in there and could feel how this nut sits, it will be like a two second thing. I’ll just quickly put my finger in there, feel where it sits, get a socket in, and undo this nut. And I had a quick glance behind me of Niko, my best mate talking to the safety observer downstairs. And he didn’t look at me. And I went and I put my hands between my knees, and I started taking my gloves off. It was such a convenient choice. It was so easy. It was just a convenient choice. And when I put my hands in between my knees to start to take the gloves off, not for a single second did I even consider how many times they told me not to do it.

How many times in a meeting have they told us don’t do it. If it’s unsafe, don’t do it. In that minute, I was so focused on getting this job done that I didn’t think about it. I started pulling my gloves out, and the moment my gloves released out of my hands, I could feel the cold sweat on the wind, chillie wind. That moment, I had this massive gut feel. Have you ever done a bit… It’s just about to do something really stupid and you get this big feeling in your gut that something is going to go wrong? That moment when I got that gut feel, it was such a strong feeling that I paused and I went, oh, that is a real feeling. Then I was standing there for a couple of milliseconds, and I thought, Man, it is so convenient. It’s so easy. It’s right in front of me. I can just get you. Of course. So, you override that gut feeling, and you go in and you took it out. And I put my hands on that nut and everything was fine. I did it. The nut came off in about five seconds.

I was so happy with myself that I was standing back with a bigger smile on my face. And the next minute, the insulator now undone started moving and it was pure instinct. I had my right wrist on the steel cross arm and with the insulator a little bit to my left, I just grabbed it with my left arm, my left hand, and I didn’t know that there was that exposed section of that 22,000-volt line. And that moment I stuck my hand straight into that line, which made me just a little fuse between draining 22,000 volts, 1,200 straight through my heart, straight into the down to Earth.

Unreal.

That moment when that power took hold of me, it was like a truck hitting me at 100 Ks an hour. It just hit me and every muscle in my body, I remember feeling every single millisecond. I knew exactly what was going on, Eric. I was thinking about so many things, but I couldn’t do anything. It was just stuck on there. And I just stuck. And it was about two and a half seconds, which in electrical terms is a long time a lifetime. It’s lifelong. I lost consciousness. My knees gave in. I think my right wrist slipped off that steel cross arm and my lifeless body hit that bottom of that bucket. And that was the end of my life as I knew it. That was my last moments as I knew my life.

So, you went to the hospital. We’re blessed to still have you here. Tell me a little bit about the aftermath, the ripple effects, what transpired. Your family had just arrived three months prior.

Yeah. You see, what electricity in specific does is when you get hooked up, it creates a like a thousand degrees Celsius and it boils your blood inside your body. So, your soft organs, your heart, kidneys, lungs, liver, everything starts to boil up. And because of that, by the time they took me back to hospital, I was lying in that hospital bed, and I remember the last nurse, she was standing around my bed. After they stitched me up and bandaged me up and put all these tubes into my system with antibiotics and painkillers and stuff like that. And just before my wife walked in, she looked at me and she didn’t say much. But she was looking at me. I had eye contact for about 10 seconds, and I just realized that I’m going to die in his bed. I’ll never forget this moment when we’re just looking at each other, not saying a word. And she walked out, and I realized I know I’ve been in this industry; I know that the infection sets in and in a day, maybe, and you will die. And I remember my wife walking just after her. And as we were talking, she’s begging me not to die because we made this agreement that I was going to. And then I could hear my little princess is only five years old. She was outside and she was screaming and begging for her Daddy. And my two boys, I’ve got three kids and they were crying and begging. And I said to the doctors if they could bring my kids in and just give me a last chance because my kids just wanted to hug them and say goodbye. The doctor said I was so bad. I smelled so bad, and I looked so bad that, please don’t let the kids see you like this.

So, I made the decision not to say goodbye to my kids that day, that moment. And that was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. I went into that night. You just count those seconds down and you know what goes through your mind the most is what made me take that shortcut? What made me choice? Why did I do it? Was it worth it? Was it worth taking that nut off? Was it worth putting my life on the line? When do you get so desensitized? What stage in a workplace, work site does you get so desensitized that you don’t even think about those material risks, the things that can kill you? And it just kept on spinning over and over and over in my mind. It was about five days later when they did tests on me and said, Theo, you’re going to make it. And during those five days, the only thing I could think of is knowing I was going to die was if someone could give me just one day with my family, one perfect day, one perfect day. It’s all I wanted, just one perfect day. And now when I stand in front of audiences, I’m asking them, have you ever thought of your own specific, personal perfect day?

What would it look like? Who were you enough with? Where would you go? Sure. They started surgeries. They removed all the dead tissue and tendons out of my arms that was dead because of gangrene. I went through 17 surgeries in the first just over a month. Every second day I had a surgery. They wanted to amputate my arms; they could save them. And then I was in hospital for quite a few months when I left. But then when I went home, it became worse because I went in there and my friends didn’t recognize me. I was now estranged from my wife. I was away from… The pressures on a relationship was just sky rocketing. I was in a dark room sitting there the whole time with severe pain. I had to depend on everyone to feed me. My hands didn’t work at all to help me wash, to wipe my bum, to do all these things. And I think about a few months in, depression kicked in and severe depression and anxiety. And it wasn’t long after that when my suicide thoughts were very real. That was the darkest ever. I’ve seen life in my life before. It was the darkest times.

I have to ask you, you know doing work around electricity, around high voltage, gloves are what blocks you from direct contact with the ground, becoming… Taking the energy down to the ground. You’re supposed to test your rubber gloves, in most cases every day, to make sure that there’s no fault, no challenge with the rubber gloves. Have you ever done anything like this before?

That is such a great question, Eric. Those gloves that you’re talking about, and it sounds like you know exactly what it was because those gloves are sacred to everyone. You take those gloves and you put them in a very soft pouch, and you do a pin test every day and you make sure that those… Because that’s the only thing that keeps you away from the beast. To answer your question, I want to go back one week before my incident. Just one week.

Sure.

The Wednesday before my incident, we were standing. There was about eight of us, nine, 10 of us on a site. There was a power pole very similar to the one I was on. And there were two guys working up on this pole in an EWP in a bucket on a live line. And there was about six of us on the ground level. And it was about, I think, two, three hours in, maybe 10 o’clock in the morning when I was standing back from this pole to see how the guys going up there. And the one guy, as I looked up, the one guy didn’t have his gloves on. And I screamed. I screamed. I blew the whistle. I said, whoa, mate, you forgot your gloves. You haven’t got your gloves on. Because that was the cardinal sin. It’s like, you don’t do that. You forgot about it. The guy turned around and he looked at me downstairs and he laughed at me, and he said to me two things which I’ll never forget. He said, Theo, don’t ever tell anyone what you just seen and don’t ever try it yourself. This guy took his gloves off to do some work around the live power line.

Never seen it, never done it. Cardinal sin. No one should be doing this, right? Right. Two days later, I’m sitting in a safety meeting, the manager comes in and he closes, slams the door, closes. We about 100 of us sitting in a room. He starts the meeting, the safety meeting, off by everyone. He says, This doors are closed. This is a safe space. Everyone, please, could you talk to us about safety out there? Can you talk to us about is there anything that we can do better? Is there anything you want to bring up that people don’t do that safe? And the more he said these things, the more there was these 10 pairs of eyes right in the back of me waiting for Theo Venter to get up and say something because he’s the guy that gets the job done. What did you do? You know what I did?

Nothing.

Nothing. Couldn’t do it. Could not get up and say it. Could not. For some reason, I couldn’t do it. When my accident actually happened was that moment when I walked out of that room that day. I couldn’t bring it up. That’s where my incident happened because that was Friday afternoon, two days later, Monday morning, I was on a power pole standing there not knowing what to do with this thing. Then I remembered this guy last week that took his gloves off and he got the job done. And that is it. That was me. That was the incident right there. In other words, short answer to your question is, I’ve never done it, never seen it. First time I’ve done it. You know what? The guy that took the shortcut last week, must probably done it 30, 40 times. He always got away with it. It’s never the convenient choice. It’s never the shortcut that you take. It’s an unforeseen thing that happens while you’re taking a shortcut. It’s an extra thing that comes into play, that thing that no one knows about. You can get away with those shortcuts, but one day something is going to come up while you’re taking that convenient choice.

Which is what happened then. Something slipped, something moved. Unfortunately.

Yeah. 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, re-energize your BBS program, enhance supervisor safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions, Propulo has you covered. Visit us at propulo.com.

So, it gets me to think a little bit about culture. What was the culture like? You talked about you get the job done. So presumably getting the job done is what was celebrated in some way, shape, or form. Others were blatantly cutting corners, at least one other person, on a cardinal rule. If you’re working next to any energized current at that level, you should never touch, not have the right gloves.

What was the culture like?

There was quite a number of things that came into perspective at that stage. There was the fact that because we were so new in Australia, we were still on a bridging visa, which means, you know where this is going, right? So, if you can do your job and you do it well and you can do it for long enough, you stay and you get your permanent residence. I didn’t come here to go back. So, there was a bit of pressure on… And please understand me very well, this is not excuses. These are things that was in place. I own 100 % what I did. 100 % I did. And that will always stay the way. But there was a bit of pressure on getting the job done. And in those days, they said to us in the cultured sense of things is look after your mates. Please go out there and look after your friends next to you, your brothers and sisters right next to you. Make sure everyone is safe. Do you know what I did in that meeting? I was looking after my brother. I was making sure he doesn’t get in trouble.

Yeah, because it’s reconstructing, which I’ve seen too often, what brother’s keeper means to protecting someone as opposed to protecting them from harm.

Yes, thank you. I was protecting my brother’s keeper by not saying anything. We’ve got a broke code out there and you don’t stab your brother in the back and that thing. So that was the culture because we were all in the same boat. We were protecting each other, and we wouldn’t do anything to hurt another guy. So that was, I think, the ground foundations of this culture. What they didn’t tell us at that stage, which after my incident for the last 10 years now, I’ve been searching for the reason why we do these things, regardless of the culture, regardless of whatever, why do we as individuals take these shortcuts? I went into behavioral science, and I went into all kinds of things that came up. Yes, there’s a lot of factors that make sense about all the other sciences, but there was one little thing that really got me in that moment when I just about to take my gloves off. Remember that real feeling in my gut? That really, it was in the back of my mind so long. What was that? I went and studied it. And this is pure biology, and I’d love to share this if that’s okay.

Absolutely. These are the things that just make so much more sense if we can teach our people and our people on our mine sites and our construction sites and these things. This basic concept is that we’ve all got a biology, we’ve all got a new cortex, a frontal cortex brain. It’s called the big brain in the front of your head is the one that calculates, it analyzes the path of least resistance. It speaks language and it understands, and it reads, and it writes, and it does all these things. That’s the part of the brain, if I say, calculates the path of least resistance. In the workplace, the path of least resistance, the easiest way to do, the most convenient way to do something is a shortcut. When we send our people to these work sites in the morning, we give them… They’ve got pre shift meetings and they need to do procedures and there’s swims and there’s all these things. And then they go out in the field, and they calculate all these things. And then they get to a place where they need to use a ladder, or they need to use something else. And this brain is so big and so powerful in front that I have now been working this brain, and I’m now taking the shift instead of the hammer because the hammer is too far and it’s not convenient to go there. And when there’s an incident, what do they do? They come back and they do the risk of the incident investigation, and they come, and they give you more procedures to go and read. So, they make the brain even younger.

There’s a little brain at the back, which they call the limbic brain. Now, this is the most amazing piece of little artwork that we have. And that is the brain that has got emotions and creativity. It deals in all these things. That’s the little part of the brain where safety gets unlocked. That’s where safety sits. When you feel unsafe, it’ll put chemicals into your body and say, watch out, there’s a snake, or whatever it is. That is the part of the brain that sends the signal to your gut. Have you ever heard of these people that needs to make a decision, oh, I don’t know if I need to go to the to use my head or my heart? Those are the two brains. Unfortunately, I don’t want to disappoint most of our listeners, but we don’t have a feeling in our gut. Sorry. That part of the brain sends that signal to your gut because it knows the gut is such a strong overpowering thing. So, when I put my hands between my knees, that little brain sent it in and said, don’t do it, Theo. Don’t do it. But I haven’t trained that brain.

I didn’t have the tool to understand and trust and respect that trust, that gut feel to go and listen to it and stand back and to say to my mate next to me, hey, Niko, does this feel right to you if I do this? I bet you wouldn’t have said no. But because of the frontal cortex is so strong, it will overpower that brain every single time. And if we could give our people out there just that little training every two, three minutes in the morning just to understand and trust that gut feel, that limbic brain, then they’ve got at least a chance of fighting against each other and say, I trust my gut. I will not do it. Last thing I want to say is, do you know how many people I spoke to that I said, have you ever had that feeling just before you get something done that you shouldn’t be doing it? Everyone goes, yes. Then I said, and then you do it anyway. They go, Oh, yes. That’s it. That’s a start anyway. But nearly everybody who’s been on our podcast who shared who’s been injured talks about that gut feel, a reaction just before. Almost unanimously, somebody has this feeling just before, but they still march forward.

That’s the golden nugget, isn’t it? I’ve been giving out little 12-millimeter nuts in every single presentation I have done to every single person. There must be about 250,000 nuts on key rings out there. I call that your gut feel, your why, your reason, your gut feel. At least there’s something they can hold on to sometimes, or they see it on the key ring, and they go, wow, I remember that. I trust my gut. I trust my feelings.

Let’s get to the topic you touched on before, which is getting to a perfect day. When you talk to audiences, you present your story, you get them to think about that perfect day. So, tell me about how you convey that message, because that’s also the decision you want people to reflect on before you take your gloves off, say, Is it really worth it?

Yeah. Eric, there’s six points that I highlight throughout my presentation if we want to get a little bit technical. They are there for a very specific reason, and it doesn’t matter if it’s an electrical industry or ice cream industry or the construction industry or whatever it is. These six points are the things that will take us forward. It’s personal development. Safety is a product of personal development. What we do is we count our mistakes. We count how many incidents and injuries we’ve had last month. And then we go this month, and we say, oh, we screwed up so many times last month, but this month is so much better. Wow. Because we only injured five people. And then next month, oh, we went a little bit worse. Instead of trying to stay away from… The human brain is amazing. Why not think of something good? Why don’t show people what good looks like? Give them something to aspire to. So, what I’ve done to Teams is after my presentation, when they are very much involved in their limbic brain and their feelings and emotions is out there, I will go into a session which I call the mission statement or whatever you want to call it.

It is to ask them as a group, as a team, what is the perfect day for them? And then we’ll write it on the board. They want respect and honesty and openness and all these things. And then I give them a sentence, we create a world in our industry that open and honest and through positive communication and these things. So, I show them what good looks like. I show them their perfect day at work. And then when they get in tomorrow morning and we ask them, is everyone is still aligned to your perfect day? In other words, we picked their value up and aligned it with the company values. Now that value is there. And when you think about something that you want to aspire to, which is good, then it comes naturally that you want to help your friend, your brother’s keeper. Those things just fall into place instead of trying to run away from the bad things and not let bad things happen. If I tell you there’s not a pink elephant behind me, it’s already in your mind. You know what I’m saying? It’s already there. So, if you tell them that that’s what your perfect day looks like, and I’ve done this to so many teams before, the culture which we touched on earlier switches immediately because now we’re looking at something great.

Let’s touch on another topic that you cover as well in your talks around ownership and accountability, which is important theme. You’re talking about your personal ownership in the circumstances, but there’s also the ownership, the accountability of leaders. Tell me a little bit about how you present this theme.

Yes, very important. I tie that into my presentation and my story as what I’ve said earlier is before we left my home country, I made a very stern agreement with my wife and my kids, people I love most in life. And I said to them, I will make sure that this agreement is that we will go over there and live a beautiful life. But I broke my agreement when I took my gloves off. And when I broke that, I had to own it. I remember my dad always said to me, if you can speak the truth in your vulnerability, you are within your power. I could not do anything else but speak the truth to everyone and said I did take my gloves off and I own it and I broke the agreement with the people I love most in life. Now at the end of the presentation, when I say, keep your agreements, that’s one of the six points. When you make an agreement with someone, if it’s a pre shift meeting in the morning or with your life, your kids, personal or work, if you keep that agreement, you become the proudest person in the world because of what you’ve done.

That creates accountability and ownership because you are now accountable for you, and you know why you do it because that’s what you want to keep. You want to keep, and you want to be a proud person in the world. That starts to form an accountability program, which in the morning you go back to, and you go, all right, is everyone still aligned with our perfect day? Can we make an agreement that everyone will go out there and conform to the regulatory authorities? Make sure that everyone is safe out there. And now we aspire to something good, we make the agreement that keeps you accountable for that. And then they will go out and look after each other because we are twisted and turned from going back to something what good looks like. I know it sounds a little harsh and quick right now, but I did write a book about it, me and Ken, so you can go and have a look at the book. It’s much better.

Very important theme. One last question, if I may. You touched on it briefly. You talked about rules, so cause evaluations, we find what happened, we create a new rule. And I agree, rules do need to exist. Rules are important. Safety at the end of the day is about adherence to rules. But you touched on something that’s really important is it’s not just about the rules. Because when you’re alone, and in this particular case, you’re pretty much alone because your friend wasn’t looking at you, so you didn’t really have a peer check. You need to buy in. You knew this was not the right thing to do. That was a cardinal rule that’s ingrained if you’re working next to a 22k V line. What does it take to drive the right choice? Rules are important, but you touched on something that’s really important here.

You just said it. It’s the buying. Our industry out there has now for the last 100 years, less than 100 years, fine-tuned our rules, our procedures, and from government side all the way down, it’s been there, and it will always be there. All the rules, all the systems, all the safety systems are there, but they are worth nothing without the buying. Absolutely nothing. And we need to create buying to these rules to understand and to give the people out there the chance to believe in the systems. Yes, I agree with you. They are important. They need to be there. I 100 % fine. But how do we create the buying? How do we get the guy downstairs, the 18-year-old just getting onto a site, or the guy that’s been there, that’s 40 years old. And I don’t know about your statistics, but the 40- to 45-year-olds in this country is the guys that get injured most because they think they’ve seen it all and then they get complacent and that’s one of these and convenient. So, the buying to these rules is absolutely paramount and we need to find a way how to get our people to buy into it.

I think I’ve broke the code and I know how to do it and I’ve seen, and I’ve proven that it can be done. Once you create the culture that supports the buying and everyone inspires to do something that is out there and that good looks like as a team and some camaraderie and your brother’s keeper, all these things come into play and the whole culture starts to shift. And that’s a beautiful thing to see. I’ve seen it many times before.

There’s somebody who was in the trade who told me once, and I don’t know if it’s true, but he said all the rules when it comes to electricity were written in blood. But if you follow all the rules that exist, there’s no reason to get seriously injured or to die. That basically, we know the universe of what we need to do. It’s just we need to actually consistently do it even when we encounter hookup issues, challenges.

True, true words. 100 % true words.

Yeah, love it. Theo, thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s a very powerful story. I still can’t wrap my head. I’m happy and thrilled that you survived 22 K Vs, 1,200 Amps. It’s surreal. But thank you for being here, for sharing your story. Incredibly powerful message. If somebody wants to get in touch with you, how can they do that?

I am just about to embark on a world tour next year. So, if you want to be part of that world tour, you can find me at theoventer.com. So, it’s Theo, my last name is V E N T E R.com. You can find me there. I’m on Facebook and Instagram and all those sites and everything else. Also, on LinkedIn at Theo venter, so you can catch me on LinkedIn. Look out for me coming around maybe your area. I will be around the Canadian areas and all the way down. So, looking forward to coming and make a huge impact. If it’s only a presentation, that’s fine. I’ll come and inspire your team to walk away. But I also do a lot of other stuff in between as well. Coachable leadership training and those things.

Excellent. Thank you so much, Theo. Really appreciate you taking the time. I know you’ve got a big day in front of you in the outback, which is going to be considerably colder than summer up here.

Appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

Cheers. Thank you.

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 teams. Elevate your safety. Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their safety leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance. Begin your journey at execsafetycoach. com. Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo Consulting.

The Safety Guru with Eric Michrowski

More Episodes: https://thesafetyculture.guru/

C-Suite Radio: https://c-suitenetwork.com/radio/shows/the-safety-guru/

Powered By Propulo Consulting: https://propulo.com/

Eric Michrowski: https://ericmichrowski.com

ABOUT THE GUEST

Theo Venter is the only known survivor of a 22,000 volt electrical shock through the heart and shares his amazing story with audiences across the globe. When he removed his insulated gloves while working on a damaged transmission pole, he made a decision that would impact himself and his family in ways he couldn’t have imagined.

But why would an experienced liney make what hindsight would tell you was such a poor decision? Theo captures the precise moment he puts his insulated gloves between his knees and removed his hands. He shares his thoughts, his feelings and more importantly his motives leading up to the exact moment of impact. Co-Author of “Get Real: Staying Alive For A Living” and “Convenience Kills”, Theo is a seasoned veteran who will assist your Managers and Leaders and every Member of your team, to truly understand the ‘real’ psychology of incidents—with first-hand experience.

Theo will make you discover something about yourself you didn’t know. About your innate human nature. That although taking risks is normal and inherent in every human being, you could potentially be the next fatality at your workplace. That’s why it’s important to talk about it and bring it out in the open. By allowing Theo to share his story, people are impacted in a way that they are reminded of what can go horribly wrong when they take a shortcut.

For more information: https://www.theoventer.com/

STAY CONNECTED

RELATED EPISODE

EXECUTIVE SAFETY COACHING

Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their Safety Leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance.

Safety Leadership coaching has been limited, expensive, and exclusive for too long.

As part of Propulo Consulting’s subscription-based executive membership, our coaching partnership is tailored for top business executives that are motivated to improve safety leadership and commitment.
Unlock your full potential with the only Executive Safety Coaching for Ops & HSE leaders available on the market.

Explore your journey with Executive Safety Coaching at https://www.execsafetycoach.com.
Executive Safety Coaching_Propulo

The Importance of Team-based Safety Culture with Dan Plexman

The importance of team-based safety culture

LISTEN TO THE EPISODE: 

ABOUT THE EPISODE

“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!

READ THIS EPISODE

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.

Oh, wow. 

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?

My goodness.

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?

Sure.

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.

Right.

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.

Sure.

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.

Goodness. 

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.

Very easy.

No problem. Just Google my name.

Thank you for listening to the Safety Guru on C-suite radio. Leave a legacy distinguish h yourself from the pack, grow your success, capture the hearts and minds of your team’s. Fuel your future. Come back in two weeks for the next episode or listen to our sister show with the Ops Guru Eric Michrowski.

The Safety Guru with Eric Michrowski

More Episodes: https://thesafetyculture.guru/

C-Suite Radio: https://c-suitenetwork.com/radio/shows/the-safety-guru/

Powered By Propulo Consulting: https://propulo.com/

Eric Michrowski: https://ericmichrowski.com

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. 

For more information: https://www.danplexman.com/

The Plexman-The Ordinary Average Guy/

Your Workplace Safety Superhero

The Plexman-The Ordinary Average Guy/ Your Workplace Safety Superhero

STAY CONNECTED

RELATED EPISODE