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Knocking on heaven's door: the Spencer Beach story

Near death experience serves as reminder not to take shortcuts
By Amanda Silliker
| Canadian Occupational Safety
Spencer Beach

On April 24, 2003, Spencer Beach didn’t want to go to work. As a flooring service technician, he had spent several days removing linoleum from a home under construction in Edmonton. On the third day, he only had to finish the laundry room and half bathroom, but he was considering calling in sick — something he never did. Despite the warning bells in his head, he went to the job site. He was working on his hands and knees when he heard a loud whistle and a bang. Beach was immediately engulfed in a flash fire that spread quickly throughout the entire house. He tried to open the front and back doors but they wouldn’t budge, since the fire was sucking up all the oxygen. He ran to the garage and tried to open the door, but it wouldn’t open either.

“My clothes were immediately burning, my hair was immediately melting, the skin on my face felt like it was shrinking, the pain was really deep,” Beach recalls.

After about 20 seconds, he was completely drained and collapsed on the ground. Time stopped. The heat and pain all disappeared. Beach had a near death experience. Then he thought about his wife and unborn child and he somehow found the will to try again. He got up, pulled the garage door as hard as he could and, miraculously, he got out.

While at the hospital, he learned he had third and fourth degree burns on 90 per cent of his body. He was told he had a five per cent chance of living. He was in a coma for six weeks and underwent half a dozen surgeries. When he woke up, he was completely immobile, not able to even sit up or lift his legs, as the scar issue had deeply set in. His lungs were severely burned. He had steel going down every one of his fingers. He had one tube going to his stomach to feed him and another in his mouth so he could breathe. He could not call for the nurses or even change the channel on the TV. Beach says he was “100 per cent useless.”

Depression quickly set in, followed by anxiety and then hallucinations. Before he knew it, he just wanted to die and he began thinking of ways to kill himself.

Then on Sept. 23, 2003, everything changed. His wife, Tina, gave birth to their first child — a baby girl named Amber.

“That was the first day I fought the pain, just to hold my daughter. There’s no way I lasted more than two minutes, but that would have been all the time I needed,” says Beach. “What happened holding my daughter was that was the first day I looked outside of myself. That was the first day in five months I stopped feeling sorry for me. I had this beautiful baby girl now and… she deserved at the very least a mom and a dad.”

Now, Beach is far from the man in the hospital bed that day. While he will never be completely back to who he was pre-injury — both his feet are partially paralyzed, he gets blood infections about once per year and he has ongoing surgeries — he is a fully functioning individual. He makes a successful living touring around North America speaking about what happened to him and encouraging workers and employers to learn from his mistakes. He delivers about 100 presentations each year.

One of Beach’s speeches focuses on getting work done safely. When he was going through therapy during his recovery, he met a lot of people who got injured on the job. They would share their stories and no matter how the incidents happened, they all had a common thread: bad behaviour. 

“They would say ‘I didn’t think it was going to happen, I didn’t see it coming, no one told me.’ They weren’t being aware, they just didn’t have the knowledge or they weren’t paying attention,” Beach says. “They didn’t think. (They would say) ‘I didn’t look, I didn’t listen, I didn’t fill out my forms, I didn’t wear my PPE, I didn’t pick up the hazard.’”

Another common element Beach found was the majority of the injured workers were not wearing their personal protective equipment (PPE). On the day of his incident, Beach was grabbing onto those red-hot door handles with his bare hands — his gloves were in his vehicle.

“Those gloves would have helped me hold on to those handles longer, try a little harder. And what if they were to help me get out a little faster? That would have reduced the burns to the rest of my body,” he says.

Beach is passionate about management’s role in occupational health and safety.

“Workers will allow themselves to go into danger, knowing they have to provide for their families,” he says. “There is a great responsibility on employers and supervisors to lead the way because if they don’t, no one else will.”

Leaders need to be very clear about the corporate culture, Beach says. Workers need to understand every single person in the organization plays the most important part.

“It’s in your hands if you are going to come to work impaired. It’s in your hands if you’re going to use your PPE. It’s in your hands if you’re going to be in a hurry and rush and disregarding safety.”

Beach says leaders need to stop using the slogan “Safety First” because workers know it’s not true.

“Workers spend 98 per cent of their day on their job and two per cent of their day on safety. They know their job is first and they know they can do their job without safety, but they can’t do safety without their job.”

He says the phrase is bad — in fact, he referred to it as bullshit — because it’s open to interpretation and is incomplete. For example, safety might be first on a gorgeous sunny day when everything is going well and the workers have time to do it. But if you change a few variables — someone doesn’t show up, a shipment comes in late, the workers are in a rush — is safety still first?

Beach suggests leaders revamp the sentence to something like “Safety is the first thing we do before we do anything else.” Now, the task is in there and the workers  understand how they can work with it, he says.

While his accident was years ago, Beach believes the home building industry has not made the “leaps and bounds” it should have when it comes to safety.

“Right now, the home industry is learning to crawl and I want to see them get up and walk and soon I want them to run, but these things take time,” he says.

Beach believes home building employers are looking at safety practices within their own organizations but they are not applying similar scrutiny to their contracts — a necessary step to create significant change.

“Not until they have hiring policies with their contractors that have to show COR (Certificate of Recognition) for even the painter will they start making phenomenal gains,” says Beach. “Things are getting better but unfortunately people are being put at risk that don’t need to be.”

When Beach was working in that home 14 years ago, he used a shortcut. His employer had developed a method for removing linoleum where a compact thinner is dumped on the floor. It seeps into the backing of the linoleum, reactivating the glue, and the flooring just peels off. It saves tons of time and loads of money but it comes with one fault — it’s explosive. Had his employer required its workers to remove the flooring the proper, longer way, the incident would

have been prevented. But Beach still puts a lot of the blame on himself, and it’s safe to say he will never ignore his gut again.

“I had a feeling removing flooring with that chemical wasn’t right, but I failed to listen to my gut feeling,” he says. “By not listening to myself and doing nothing to control that hazard my gut was warning about, I effectively did nothing to control the risk.”

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2017 issue of COS.

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