Live from NSC: Accident Prevention is an Oxymoron

"Safety is really your choice. This was my choice," said Charlie Morecraft, pulling back his sleeves and holding up his arms, revealing some of the scars left from the burns on more than half of his body, reminders from an industrial explosion in 1980, when he was an employee for Exxon Corp. He spent the next five years in hospitals, burn centers, and trauma centers and continues to suffer complications from the incident. "I've had more surgeries than Michael Jackson," he said. "Twenty-something years later, and I'm still paying the price for my actions. I just took my life for granted."

Judging from a show of hands, many safety professionals attending this morning's motivational keynote in Chicago on this final day of the National Safety Council's 95th Expo have heard Morecraft's harrowing tale before. Morecraft shared the stage for the event with Dr. Scott Geller, a senior partner with Safety Performance Solutions, who said, "I'm a psychologist. I can read your minds. I know why you're here even though you've heard Charlie before. You're here because he justifies what you do. Charlie makes it personal. Charlie reminds you this morning of what it's all about, why you do what you do, and why you're here."

Geller, who also is in his 39th year of being a professor at Virginia Tech, recalled the morning of April 16 when he was driving to work and received a call, telling him to turn around and go home because a killer was on campus. "We are still reeling and healing from that," he said. "Who would have thought that a senior majoring in English would take handguns, lock those classrooms. . . . . It was so surreal. But they were not just numbers. You know when it got personal? When I read the stories of those who got killed. . . . At graduation, everyone received a booklet with the names of everyone who was killed, and that, too, made it personal."

Geller said the media handled the whole incident poorly, as did those who sought blame and those who called for the university president's firing. He said the correct response involved "actively caring for people." The week after the campus killings, he said, he was scheduled to teach his regular two classes, one of which had 500 students, the other of which had 600. "Everyone was there," he said. "They all showed up to show their support."

Morecraft, president of Phoenix Safety Management, said that his whole life changed in a split second that night of the explosion in 1980, and he attributes his own willingness to take shortcuts to the results that followed. "You think safety is uncomfortable? Seat belts are uncomfortable? You know what's uncomfortable? Learning how to get around for the rest of your life in a wheelchair or learning how to get around for the rest of your life using one of those red-and-blue-tipped canes for the blind. That's uncomfortable. That's damned uncomfortable. But safety's uncomfortable, seat belts are uncomfortable? Gimme a break." Raising his arms, showing his scars again, he says, "This is what's uncomfortable. Do you know how many times in my life I've stood in front of the mirror and yelled 'Why? Why the hell did I do it?'"

Morecraft said that although the circumstances of listeners' jobs might be different from his former one at Exxon, the outcome can and will be similar for anyone who has the same attitude he did on the day of the explosion. "What caused this accident was my attitude toward safety, and if you have the same attitude, it will happen to you," he said. "I am no different than you are. If you fail to wear the protective equipment, fail to follow procedures, the same thing will happen to you. Your circumstances might be differet, but the result will be the same. . . . We've got to accept our own responsibility for safety. Everyone deserves a future. Please don't let this happen to you."

Geller chided Morecraft for using the word "accident," and Morecraft agreed his incident was no such thing but rather the direct result of his actions. "'Accidents are preventable' is an oxymoron," Geller noted. "An accident is a chance event. We have to watch our language. They're not 'seat belts,' they're life belts, they're safety belts."

Geller ended the keynote session by encouraging those in attendance to think broadly, open-mindedly, and to gather data. "Without data, you're just a jerk with an opinion," he said. "We have to strive for diverse thinking. . . . We need to be developing strategies to always be better."

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