Accidents weren’t the kind of thing that happened to me. They happened to everyone else. I knew all of the safety rules and regulations, but I didn’t need to follow them because I knew all of the shortcuts too. I didn’t wear personal protective equipment, such as safety glasses, because it wasn’t cool. I was arrogant – and wrong. On a hot August day in 1980, my life changed forever because the shortcuts I took caused a refinery explosion that burned half my body.
At the time of the accident I was an operator for Exxon, refining raw product into gasoline. Exxon’s management team had a safety procedure in place for changing out a blank – the task I was asked to perform. I could have followed the safety procedures, but I didn’t. I chose to ignore them. I had taken shortcuts thousands of times before and nothing ever went wrong – until the night my actions destroyed a part of an Exxon installation and gave me all the time in the world to think about my attitude toward safety.
While I was taking the shortcuts to change the blank, the flammable petroleum product in the line surged up, splashing me in my eyes and drenching my shirt. When I realized what was going on I ran from the area. Unfortunately, I had left my truck running. The chemical vapor hit the truck’s ignition system as I ran past. The truck exploded into a ball of flames that engulfed me. I was on fire. I ran to a puddle to put myself out. I tried to shut other valves off, but it was too late. The refinery started to go up in flames.
I can’t begin to explain the pain I was in. It was unbearable. When you are burned as badly as I was you need to go through a process called debriding. It is excruciatingly painful, but it has to be done to prevent scar tissue. You are lowered into a tank containing water, bleach and antibiotics. The burned skin and new scabs that form are peeled off. It’s done every day. I endured three months in and out of debriding tanks.
The greatest pain, though, was the pain my accident caused my family. Here I am, 29 years after the explosion, and it breaks my heart to know the suffering my family experienced and continues to experience because of my arrogance and vanity. I spent five years in the hospital and have had 30 to 40 operations. All because I didn’t want to take the time to follow the safety procedure when changing the blank.
It took years for me to talk about what happened. Now I travel around the world sharing my story at events such as the National Safety Council’s Annual Congress & Expo. It is my hope that people who hear my story learn to never take shortcuts and always wear PPE. Safety procedures are in place for a reason, and ignoring them can mean disaster.