Learnings from the Flin Flon Smelter Explosion: Making Workplaces Safer with Brian Humphreys
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Brian Humphreys shares the story of the Flin Flon, Manitoba smelter explosion at Hudson Bay Mining & Smelting in his book No Smoke Without Fire; A Recipe for Disaster. He was the safety supervisor on the night of the fatal smelter explosion and details the tragedy and shares perspectives on what can be done to prevent potentially fatal workplace incidents. He touches on the importance of front-line supervision and the importance of a focus on Safety Culture on this episode of the Safety Guru.
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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 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 The 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. This is your host, Eric Michrowski. And today I am very happy to have with me a gentleman that has an incredible career and incredible experiences in safety. And I want to have him share a little bit about his journey and some of his key learnings throughout his career. So today I have with me right. Brian, thank you very much for joining us on The Safety Guru.
Well, thank you, Eric, and thanks for inviting me on your show.
Great. So maybe if you can share a little bit about your incredible background and story in the safety space, OK, well, I left school when I was 16 to go into a steelwork as an apprentice, apprentice fitter. And at the age of 20, I finished my apprenticeship in the UK. If you didn’t get an apprenticeship by the time, you were 17, you didn’t get one. So, I’d forgotten the apprenticeship. We were released to go to a technical school one day a week for four years.
When I finished my apprenticeship, I got married right away, a twenty-five-year-old age of 20 to the love of my life, and I continue to work at the steelworks where my father, grandfather, brother and sister, along with thirteen and a half thousand other employees, was a fully integrated steelworks, which means it went into the iron ore at one and then came out of steel. And Margaret Thatcher entered the European Union in the late 70s and the steel making began its restructuring.
Unfortunately, the steel which where I worked was an old plant and 10000 people lost their jobs overnight. It no longer made steel. It processed steel from other plants. Hmm. I had an opportunity to come to Canada. They were advertising at the mine in flimflamming. And I had the interview and came out in April of 1981, along with my wife and two children. They were aged four and seven at the time and there were seventy-three other tradespeople came along from the UK at the same time, well within a year of one another of the first eight years.
And since then, I was an industrial mechanic. I was involved in the Health and Safety Committee and also a union recording secretary for the International Association of Machinists Union. I then got promoted to work in the Health and Safety Department as a coordinator when this was just coming on stream. They needed people for trainers. And I also spent eight years in the volunteer fire department and has a team and obtained my recipe in April of 2000. So, at approximately 28 years in the health and safety profession before retiring in April of 1997.
Hmm. So, tell me about your experience in the safety space. I think one of the areas you’ve written a book on, one of the key learnings around the explosion, but also a couple of other things. I’d love to hear a little bit about your story of going through an event of that nature, the explosion that had happened in Flint Flon. I believe you were on shift at that point in time when it occurred. Such experiences are a great opportunity to learn from.
So, I’d love to hear a little bit about your story there.
Absolutely. It was the worst night of my life, and it was one of the worst experiences anybody could imagine. And the maintenance shutdown of the furnace and the smelter was fairly routine. It had been done and the furnace was built in the 1930s and it was made of refractory brick, which needed to be replaced every year. And so, it was a routine job that many, many times before and over the years, better methods of controlling the furnace temperatures, better refractory breaks get extended, the life of the furnace.
So, it went from an annual event to a two-year event and then eventually a three-year event. So, the expertise of the people that were involved in the tear down and rebuild the experience was being lost so much over time and people were retiring. So that was one of the impacts of the. Of the process, the furnace will shut down at seven o’clock, it was a planned event for 10 days and it was a lot of high expectations going into the shutdown that it was going to be done safely on time and everything was going to go to plan.
Unfortunately, at about two o’clock in the morning, there was an explosion. The cause of the explosion was determined to be the amount of water that was being used to wash down the beams and the top end of the furnace operations for the demolition. It was an absolutely devastating event for the community. We have, sir, four air ambulances flying that evening to take the critically injured to hospital. One, unfortunately, passed away of his injuries eight days later.
And the, you know, three the other three individuals very badly burned. There was 43. The case is filed for workers compensation, 28 to stress related. And while 28 individuals lost time from work put down for. It had been planned to shut down for 10 days and it was two months before it was put back into operation. Hmm. Horrible. The company pleaded guilty to one count under the workplace safety and health regulations, and part of that, they wanted to spare the families and the community the ordeal of going through a long, drawn-out trial were ordered to pay the maximum fine at the time of the law, which was one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, which was a pittance compared to that cost in terms of human suffering and cost of production, loss and credibility.
And also, safety problems had existed at the time of the explosion. They were not deemed to be adequate. And there were nine recommendations that came out of the inquiry. Right. In regards to the changes that needed to take place for any future shutdowns. And the investigation team conducted a third, conducted 36 interviews, produced seven 710-page report. The following shutdown, which took place five and a half years later, use no water whatsoever in the furnace up until the 2000 shutdown.
What had been used washdown every year in every shutdown which prior to the.
And so how did it impact your perspective? So, going through such an event like this, having been in safety for 28 odd years, how did an event like this impact your perspective on the importance of safety, but also how accidents can take place?
Well, there’s a number of things I took away from it. And one of the things that is that, you know, you never stop learning and, you know, and the things that were once common practice can become totally unacceptable. And I use the example of smoking on airplanes. And I remember those was a bad example because it wasn’t acceptable practice at one time. And today, if anybody would have a cigarette on an airplane, people would be absolutely mortified.
And using the use of water around the furnace was it was an acceptable practice. I mean, it was a planned as I say, it was a planned event. It was part of the schedule. It was you know; it was in line of what the expectations were when the explosion occurred and the ramifications of it hit the community, everybody. So that wasn’t a great idea. Why are we doing this? It’s obvious after the event and not so obvious when the event was occurring.
And I wonder what we do today in the workplace, which often should be considered in the future. Totally unacceptable, you know. Yeah. And I’m sure that things and I think that’s well said because there’s a lot of standards, expectations that were accepted at one point. And at some point, people realized it was really never safe. Were there some clues early on before it happened that maybe this wasn’t the best way to proceed? And it’s possible that we don’t know that.
But was there a way that it could have been prevented through learning from small, small steps, small actions?
Well, the washdown was it was a preventative measure. It was put in place to reduce the number of injuries and improve the conditions around the demolition. There was always, you know, the area was a very dusty, hot area and it was lots of material calcined, as they call it. It’s roasted concentrate that is used to go into the furnace, the feed. So, there was a lot of dust around the area that needed to be disposed of.
No water, as I say, had been used since 1930. So, it seemed like you know, and the actual task of watching it down was dealing with fire hoses. The amounts and the quantity of water that was used was questionable in terms of the volume and how much was being supplied. But obviously it had been possible to do that type of activity without consequence.
Mm-hmm. And I’ve seen these similar settings in other shutdowns where you get normalized to certain pieces and it’s some variables are just a little bit more and then something gets out of hand. So. So your story is similar to that. I’ve heard some others that turn into two fires, et cetera, just because it became almost too normalized and people went a little bit above the spec and hadn’t really understood out of what the limitations were. And something catastrophic happens at one time.
Are there any key learnings that you’d like to share with listeners around your 49 years of experience? Because that’s a lot of experience, a lot of different settings. And you’ve you must have seen a lot of different incidences on top of this one.
Well, I think, you know, I by example, you can do the wrong thing and get away with it and you can do the right thing and still get hurt. You know, I’ve seen that over the course of my profession where people have been hurt and they were in the wrong place at the wrong time or they certainly were doing what they were supposed to be. Right. I’ve talked to people and I you know, and I did lots of interviews with people after accidents and I’ve done some training with supervisors and, you know, a moment of indecision or a lack of concentration can lead to a lifetime of regret.
Of course, it’s something that happens so quickly that when people get injured and the other things that I’ve noticed in my experience, it seems sometimes to be in conflict between education and experience in the workforce. Tell me more. And I think it’s unfortunate. You know, I respect both. I respect people that are well-educated. And I also have a great deal of respect for the experience that people have gained through the work that they performed. And I used an example in the book that kind of reflects a little bit on that.
It’s I think we’re moving in the right direction, but we’ve got a long way to go and we shouldn’t limit ourselves on things that we know and we can do. We need to challenge ourselves as much as we can. And we shouldn’t change. We should embrace it. Yeah, well, those are some of the key things that I’ve learned. And the number one, I guess, is you never stop learning.
Yeah, that’s very well said, because there’s so many things that just even the story you share before really illustrates this. I loved your point around focus as well in terms of all it takes is a second and you have regret for a very long time. And often too often what I’ve seen is people who think it’s not going to happen to me. And so, they don’t realize the extent of that, that little moment of focus that really can happen to absolutely anyone.
Absolutely. And I in my 20s, I had no fear of heights. And this is probably as good as an example as a kid used to almost feel invincible. I worked on the train over at the train crew. You know, we often didn’t tie off or even have a tie of things. And I managed to tie to. But it almost felt like you were invincible. And I think when you grow older, you start to get a little bit more respect to the environment that you find yourself in.
And today, I’m not. I must admit, I’m not good with heights. Nothing like I was when I was in my early 20s. So, yeah, there’s certainly that aspect to it.
In your book, you talk a little bit about culture and what are some of the signs around culture, some of the challenges you’ve seen and the importance of culture when it comes to the safety?
Well, I think people want and everything I’m talking about now is just from my perspective. So, culture to me is how we do things around here, you know, the norm. And that could be a good thing or a positive thing or it can be a very negative thing. Yeah. And but people can get swallowed up by an organizational culture and they can cultures can change over a period of time. But it’s a process. It takes a lot of time.
It takes a lot of time. Once you’ve got a negative culture in the work environment, it’s not an easy fix. It’s not something that you can just wave a magic wand. And the next minute, until I wish it was that simple, I wish it was that simple.
And the way I would measure a cultural environment that needs to be looked at closely is in terms of high turnover, high incident rate absenteeism. You know, those are kind of key indicators that, you know, the needs of lots of grievances filed on time. That’s where people aren’t getting along as well as they should be. And it’s creating an environment where people don’t want to want to be. So, it’s subtle, it’s and it certainly impacts morale and what about safety in the bottom line and if the cultural environment isn’t what it should be?
And I think your point is very good there in terms of really that that connection between safety and the bottom line, I think these things are integrated. I like your examples of signs that something’s wrong from a cultural standpoint. The fact is, everybody’s got a corporate culture and you’ve inherited the one you’ve got and it can be changed. But there is no such thing as I can buy a good culture about culture. It’s really it is what you have and then you’ve got to start shaping it and informing it.
But I love the precursors, the signs that you can see that something’s a little bit off and definitely have seen similar things that can construction as an example where you can have very high turnover in certain areas and other sites, work sites will have almost no turnover and to the difference can be actually extreme in like for like same region, same type of work. I’ve seen anywhere from two to construction sites side by side where one turnover is probably two percent or so or less and another one is closer to 20 or 30 percent.
That’s a substantial difference for same trades, same type of work. So, love your thoughts on culture and love you for you to tell me a little bit about your book. So, you wrote your book, No Smoke Without Fire A Recipe for Disaster. A lot about your experiences. Tell me a little bit about the book. It’s available on Amazon, but I’d love to hear from your perspective some of the key insights from that book.
Well, I never considered myself to be an author after the explosion. I did take some counseling and I had a very hard time dealing with the effects of the two of the disaster. And my counselor suggested that if I couldn’t talk to anybody and that included my wife even that I should just write my thoughts down on a piece of paper and go, which I did. And so, I had all this paper in the drawer. And when I finished my career and retired three years ago, I still, you know, felt there was so much to contribute.
So, I started on this adventure of writing a book, became a manuscript to an editor, Rick Johnson, from When Beach. And he was formidable in terms of giving me advice and coaching me through the process. One of the things that Richard mentioned was who is your target audience? I never even considered it, to be honest. And he said, you know, if you write it in for people who work at the mines, you don’t have to be very descriptive in what you’re talking about because they know what you’re talking about.
But if you’re writing people that have never been in a mine, you need to be. More detailed, not in mind, if you get into too much detail, you lose the people that work in the mine. So, this is a fine line there. And so, it’s a simple read. It’s not a complicated read. People have read it from other industries, worked in pulp and paper and construction and. And the oil and gas industry of that have read it have said, well, you know, I can relate to this.
This happened right in our industries. And I’m pleased to hear that, that it’s reaching and it’s broader than even I anticipated. And it’s one a Canadian Book Award. It’s posted on their website, which I was very, very pleased about. And it’s available in Kindle format, paperback and hardcover on the Amazon. And it’s also available worldwide through their distribution system. Yep. So, it’s been well received from not only the shop floor, but right through to the boardroom in terms of I’ve had people in senior management positions that have acknowledged it as well as, you know, people that have.
That work in the organization pretty well, every level, so it’s a good book for people going into the industries. It’s I think it’s good for supervisors you should to learn from because it talks a lot about their responsibilities and what they should be looking for. Well, each of a good supervisor, which is so important and a challenge and struggle that so many organizations face is how does the front-line leader inspire? How do they drive the right behaviors to drive safety on the front line?
Well, that is my belief and my observation. After 49 years at the front line, supervisor is one of the key players in terms of influencing the workplace, in terms of setting the standards, making sure that, you know, the people that are working directly for him are doing the right thing at the right time.
I completely agree, and so often I’ve talked to frontline team members who pretty much would say, I really don’t care about the VP. I don’t care about the president or the CEO. What really matters is the person who’s who is there, who gets what I do. That’s the person that I listen to. And so that’s the biggest opportunity most businesses have, is really engaging at that level because it’s there’s only so much a CEO can do in terms of connecting with every worker.
Yes. I couldn’t agree more. And the other thing that I point out in the book, that it’s seldom the supervisors or managers that actually get it. It’s the workers themselves that end up injured. And, yeah, I point out in the book that there’s all sorts of safety programs that come into play. And there’s again, you know, we talk about who’s responsible for safety. And to me, it’s a responsibility.
It is responsibility at every level, including the worker. And that is one of the things that the inquiry pointed out that. Know the companies and industries have a right, you know, I have an obligation to point out the hazards that people are being exposed to and provide and everything else. I couldn’t agree more. But there’s a checks and balances in that. And the worker has some responsibility to, you know, participate in the process.
If they see something that doesn’t look right or doesn’t feel right, they need to challenge it.
Absolutely, and it touches back on something you talked about even earlier in terms of the focus is so, so often is just something doesn’t feel right. Sometimes it’s even a gut instinct. Sometimes I see something, but I need to speak up and stop work if I see anything that’s a little bit off. And that’s also management leadership that I would say is actually mostly a management leadership component in terms of how do I create the environment where people feel safe doing that.
It’s easy to say to somebody stop work. I was talking to an executive once who is even saying I was noticing somebody else was doing something that was dangerous and was risky. And I was trying to get them to stop work. And I realized that I asked my leaders to do this every day and I couldn’t even make that person stop because it’s not always that easy. So even that influenced the comfort, the psychological safety, as a lot of people talk about all key elements that, like leaders get a chance to influence.
Thank you so much for joining me on the show. Brian, I really appreciate you sharing the perspective from front line from a leadership standpoint and also going through such a horrific incident like this one. And I appreciate you took the time to write a book, to share your story, to convey the message, because this is such an important message for so many leaders and team members. And I think your approach is phenomenal.
So, thank you so much. Have a wonderful day. And if you’re interested in the book, it’s available, as Brian mentioned, on Amazon. No smoke without fire.
Thank you again for having me on your podcast. I really appreciate it.
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ABOUT THE GUEST
Over 49 years of experience in steelmaking and mining as a tradesman and as a safety professional, both in the United Kingdom and Canada, has given Brian Humphreys a unique perspective from which to write about the Flin Flon Smelter explosion of 2000 and other workplace incidents that have impacted so many lives. Brian’s goal in writing his first book is to increase awareness by sharing these experiences with others and the lessons that have been learnt from them so they may never again be repeated.
To Read the Book: “No Smoke Without Fire”: A recipe for disaster by Brian B Humphreys
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