LLOYDMINSTER, Alta. – There are certainly different degrees to which a person can get hurt while on the workplace – anything from a cut on the finger, a knock to the head, to something far more serious and life-threatening.
The Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) addressed workplace safety with its first of several planned events, the 2016 Lloydminster Safety Conference and Trade Show Jan. 27, and if the personal story of keynote speaker Spencer Beach was intended to pull at a person’s heartstrings, while shining a powerful light on what can happen if safety is not taken seriously, it achieved its goal.
Beach’s story is one that depicts with graphic detail the events that turned the one-time flooring service worker into an advocate for workplace safety, not through more government regulation, but a change in attitude and behaviour in employees and company management.
“After getting hurt, I did something unique that most injured workers don’t: I became passionate about safety and I became fully educated,” Beach told AMTA conference attendees. “And when I was in the education process, I thought, ‘Why am I even here?’ They know everything, and yet people continue to get hurt at phenomenal rates. We know what it takes to keep people safe, so where I decided to focus is in the behaviours that people bring to the workplace.”
Beach said he estimates that there are somewhere in the area of 200,000 workplace injuries every year in Alberta, and despite the fact that there have been no new laws added to health and safety in a number of years, people continue to get hurt.
“That tells me that everything we need to know about health and safety already exists,” Beach said, “so why is it that so many people continue to get hurt? The answer to that is quite simple: it’s behaviours.”
Bill C-45 was the last health and safety law to be added, and part of the reason it was passed in 2004 was because of Beach’s accident.
The bill states: “Every one who undertakes, or has the authority, to direct how another person does work or performs a task is under a legal duty to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to that person, or any other person, arising from that work or task.”
“Basically, what that law says,” Beach added, “is that management needs to be held accountable that they make every reasonable step to provide a safe place.”
Beach, however, said that getting people to change their attitudes toward workplace safety can be a challenge.
“I can tell you that 10 years ago, I didn’t really know that much about safety either. I was that kind of guy who would have fought it if I had to,” he said. “Ultimately, what we’re trying to achieve is getting people home each and every day…that’s all we’re trying to do.”
Beach’s story began April 24, 2003.
As a service worker for an Edmonton flooring company, Beach overlooked 14 crews, fixing mistakes any made.
“About the only difference between me and the rest of you is that I didn’t have a safety system to follow,” Beach said. “I don’t think there’s any one of you who can say you don’t have a safety system at work.”
On his last inspection of the day, Beach was faced with having to remove all of the linoleum flooring because the wrong colour had been installed.
Beach’s boss told him of an old method that would help make his job easier and quicker, which involved using a chemical, dumping it on the floor a few litres at a time and letting is soak in for a couple minutes. The chemical would react with the glue and the linoleum would come up much like a ‘wet Band-Aid.’
The only issue was the fumes.
Beach said he did what he was taught, and turned the home’s thermostat down to its lowest setting – 16 degrees Celsius – to rid an ignition source, and ensured there was ventilation.
Near the end of the work day, around 4 p.m., Beach was nearly done, and the last worker assisting Beach left the house, closing the door behind him.
“I heard a loud whistle, and then ‘bang!’” Beach said. “A fire ignited out of nowhere and engulfed my entire body. The fire was so thick, I couldn’t see through it, as the flames danced all around me. It was everywhere…floor to ceiling, wall to wall, and I was in the middle of it.”
What Beach had not realized was that the day’s high temperature was 19 degrees Celsius, but had fallen below 16 degrees, causing the furnace to kick in for the first time unexpectedly.
Beach struggled for several minutes to open any door, but all the air was sucked back into the house to feed the fire, and they were stuck shut.
At one point, Beach curled into a ball and gave up.
“I’m told this fire reached 1,500 degrees Celsius instantly because of the chemical I was working with,” Beach explained. “To put that in perspective, the average house burns at about 700 degree Celsius, and they cremate bodies at 1,500 degrees, so I hope you can understand when I say that all my energy was drained in less than 20 seconds.”
Eventually Beach said he found strength for one last burst and was finally able to open a door to the garage, but when he leapt out of the house, he landed in the pile of linoleum flooring where it was being disposed, starting a second fire in the garage.
“At this point, I thought nothing else could possibly happen to me,” he said, “and I could see sunshine.”
Beach then ran out of the garage outside, collapsing on his back, with everything going black.
Laying in a coma with 90% of his body burned and his wife four months pregnant, Beach was given a 5% chance of survival.
“The doctors literally gave me the option to die if I wanted,” he said.
Following bouts of depression, anger, pain and the desire to take his own life, Beach said what turned his life was the birth of his daughter.
The hardest part of dealing with the incident for Beach is not the injury itself, but how it has affected those around him.
His wife became depressed and the two lived apart for two years, and his brother lost his job, his home, wrestled with alcohol abuse and spent time in jail, all due to his struggle to deal with what happened to his sibling.
“You guys are seeing the ripple effect, right?” Beach asked. “The reality that they don’t tell you about the ripple effect is that it never ends. Even going on to my thirteenth year since my incident, there’re still people in my life who are finally catching up. That ripple effect is 100% inclusive of everyone you care about.”
This ripple effect is what painted the theme for the entire AMTA Safety Conference and Trade Show – It’s not about you, it’s about your family.
Beach continues to speak at events about the importance of workplace safety and the attitudes and behaviours that go along with that, and meets with groups of workers who are struggling the most coping with their workplace injuries.
“I’ve found a way to turn this story into something so much more for so many people to where it’s actually become a positive,” Beach said, “so don’t cry for me.”