Sep 30, 2019
I spent 23 days in the infirmary, seven months in physical therapy, and I was out of work for over 10 months. All this occurred for one reason: I took a safety shortcut. I weighed 225 pounds on the day of my accident and stepped out of the hospital at 180 pounds. I was physically, psychologically and mentally a changed person.
In 1991, I was a power lineman for a utility corporation in Tennessee. Part of my work was to connect, fix and eliminate hanging distribution power wires. I relished being on two inches of iron 50 feet off the earth. It was exhilarating to handle 13,000 volts of electricity in my fingers.
Was it a risky operation? Yes, but it never troubled me. I grew up seeing my friend’s father do linework and recognized that’s what I needed to do for a living. I went to work certain that I would be protected. In this hubris, I assumed it would be the “other guy” that was hurt and I would escape any job incident and injury-free. To control high-voltage electricity in your palms, you were required to use the customary personal protective equipment (PPE). In this instance, I should have been using specific types of rubber mitts. Rather, I had put on a pair of common leather gloves. I was carrying a set of pipe cutters, and I inadvertently grazed the palm of my right hand to an energized overhead conductor.
Thirteen thousand, two hundred volts of electricity moved through my defenseless hands. It’s a wonder I’m living. Six operations over the next five days were incapable of keeping my hands. Today, I am a two-sided below-the-elbow amputee.
I don't think of myself as a victim. Everything that day was under my power. What occurred was my obligation. I consider myself to be lucky to have lived. I’m thankful that I am still alive right now to tell my story to others, so they don’t make the same error I made. What I want to do in my overall advice is to teach, provoke and encourage everyone to develop a safety culture that works for everyone.
When I returned to my job after my accident, the rules, procedures, and systems changed where safety leadership was concerned. Safety was drawn out front because the organization I worked for didn’t want to see a disaster like mine ever occur to anyone else. Thirteen thousand volts passed through me. It didn't seem likely that I would persevere.
The safety culture of the business began to shift after my misfortune. People began to watch out for each other. They called out unsafe practices and circumstances more often. We refused to let luck be the reason they made it back home every day. As a safety leadership speaker, I’ve had many people speak to me about how fortunate they’ve been in a job situation when they were not obeying safety customs. The definition of luck is success or failure brought by chance rather than through one’s actions. Safety leadership is not about chance. It’s about particular, deliberate behaviors that circumvent a possibly dangerous circumstance.
Safety culture is illustrated by a company’s values, beliefs, and assumptions about safety.
Almost 30 years have passed since my on-the-job accident. I can tell my account by the details of what transpired. I replaced any emotional attachment to this horrific tragedy with feelings of optimism and victory. I am dedicated to educating anyone I meet on the value of occupational safety and improving the safety culture of organizations all across the globe.
Lee Shelby | Sep 30, 2019 - I spent 23 days in the hospital, seven months in physical therapy, and I was out of work for over 10 months. All this happened for one reason: I took a shortcut. I weighed 225 pounds the day of my accident and walked out of the hospital at 180 pounds. I was physically, mentally and emotionally a different person.
In 1991, I was a power lineman for a utility company in Tennessee. Part of my job was to install, repair and remove overhead distribution power lines. This was a dream job for me. I loved standing on two inches of steel 50 feet off the ground. And what a rush to hold 13,000 volts of electricity in my hands. It was exhilarating!