Forget the stats, kayakers tale tells the real reason for safety

The consensus around the lunch table last month at the 11th Annual Construction Safety Conference was that mechanical contractors do pretty well when it comes to jobsite safety. The informal conversation among general contractors and safety directors indicated that roofing contractors and glaziers could learn a thing or two from mechanicals. As if we needed any reminder, however, that safety requires

The consensus around the lunch table last month at the 11th Annual Construction Safety Conference was that mechanical contractors do pretty well when it comes to jobsite safety. The informal conversation among general contractors and safety directors indicated that roofing contractors and glaziers could learn a thing or two from mechanicals.

As if we needed any reminder, however, that safety requires everyone to be ever-vigilant, our lunchtime speaker was two-time Olympic kayaker Cliff Meidl. His speech was anything but the usual talk about how running a contracting firm is a lot like paddling a two-man kayak.

Meidl was a 20-year-old plumber’s apprentice in 1986 when he nearly blew off both his legs in a jobsite accident. With very little training, he was given a jackhammer and told to break up some pavement. What he hit were buried wires containing 30,000 volts of electricity.

An ambulance rushed him to the hospital where he technically died three times before being brought back to life by a team of ER doctors. Over the next 15 months Meidl and his parents fought with physicians who wanted to amputate his legs. Instead, they opted for surgery that was experimental at the time, and he underwent 15 operations — and untold suffering — over the next 15 months to save his legs.

With little use of his legs initially, he took up rowing and paddling exercises as part of his recuperation. Obviously endowed with a fighting spirit, Meidl eventually made the U.S. Olympic kayaking team, twice. His story was inspirational enough that his fellow Olympians selected him to carry the U.S. flag last year at the Summer Games in Sydney.

Meidl’s jobsite accident occurred 15 years ago, and mechanical contractors have made huge strides in safety since then. Contractors have established and shared best practices to enhance their safety records.

Such practices include formal training, of course, and the best training seems to come from an in-house person. That shows employees the company is committed enough to hire a full-time safety director.

An even stronger sign of commitment is to have top management actively involved in establishing a safety culture in the company. As we’ve pointed out before, good safety is also good business. A sterling safety record can help a contractor get jobs and save money.

But the real importance of safety can’t be found in numbers. It’s a very human issue of pain and suffering.

Just ask Cliff Meidl.