“On which day in your life did you make a commitment to safety?” This is a question that most of the dedicated safety people I’ve met over the years can answer. You see, it’s a hallmark of the safety professional to enter the field because of a single incident they witnessed or were involved in. I would like to share the experience that turned me into a safety professional. I was working as a claim agent for Grand Trunk Western Railroad Company in Battle Creek, MI. I wasn’t what you’d call squeamish about accidents and death. After all, I had spent two years in the army and personally investigated decapitations and amputations. I had seen people left as vegetables and entire families wiped out in a single train wreck. But what would happen to me on this night would be different.The phone rang. It was the trainmaster. “Art, we’ve got a bad one. You’d better get down here right away.”
I hurriedly dressed and drove to the yard office. They told me what happened. One of our firemen had climbed down from his engine to make a fancy switching move. His intent: to save a minute or two. Somehow, he wound up standing on a live track. It was dark. He didn’t see the cars coming; they didn’t see him. They ran him over and cut off one arm and both legs.
The fireman was a young man — younger than me — with a wife and kids. Bad stuff. And it was about to get worse.
The Moment of Truth
I’m sorry to say that there are a lot of sick people in this world. Among the sickest are the goons who listen to police radio messages hoping to hear reports of gory accidents so they can visit the scene. Nothing thrills them more than to see a dead and badly mutilated body. After the body has been removed, they scour the ground for traces of blood and flesh. You can actually see the saliva on their lips.
Ever since I came to know of the existence of these creeps I got into the habit of kicking the gravel at the scene of accidents to deny them their pleasure. But as dawn broke on this morning, it became clear that kicking the gravel would do no good. The tracks were strewn with chunks of the fireman’s flesh. I still remember using fallen tree branches as “chop sticks” to pick up some of these chunks and digging a hole so I could bury them with my own two hands.
The experience left me a changed man. Safety was no longer just a job; it was a resolution. I made a vow to do everything in my power to prevent these kinds of accidents. I dedicated my life to the cause of safety.
I’m happy to report that the fireman somehow pulled through. And so did my resolution. After the triple amputation, I took my first steps: I produced an audio-visual program consisting of slides and tape recordings for the employees of Grand Trunk. I paid for it with my own money. I sought out our Vice President — before the experience I had never even met anybody from management — and played him the tape. He loved it. He persuaded me to revise the program to add statements of management. He set up a meeting with the President and two other VP’s.
After the tape was all filmed I presented it to management. When the last slide was over, I walked in front of the now blank screen and said: “Gentlemen, this is my thing now and you can either let me do it for the railroad or leave to do it with somebody else.”
I was scared to death — with a wife and four kids to support. I had been with that railroad 25 years and it was the only job I knew. Now I was laying it all on the line.
A few agonizing weeks later, I had my answer: Yes. I got a $5,000 raise and, more importantly, the freedom to do what I thought was necessary to save lives, prevent injuries and improve morale at the railroad. It was the turning point of my career — and my life.