Oct 14, 2014

Remember Charlie

By Amanda Silliker
While many workers in oil and gas have heard Charlie Morecraft’s story, it didn’t stop a room full of 950 occupational health and safety professionals from being deeply touched by his presentation at Enform’s Petroleum Safety Conference earlier this year. Delegates sniffled, wiped away tears and sat in stunned silence as Morecraft shared his horrific story.

In 1980 Morecraft was working the night shift at an Exxon oil refinery in New Jersey. When he went to one of the manifolds in the refinery to change out a blank on a pipeline, a surge of chemicals came gushing out.

“It was a job I had done 1,000 time before… A job I had complained about many times before. Management had devised a procedure on how to safely do these jobs but I knew what shortcuts to take,” said Morecraft at the conference in Banff, Alta.

Morecraft ran out of the manifold but when he went past his truck, which he had left on, it ignited.

“The truck blew up and I blew with it; one big ball of flames from head to toe.”

When the ambulance came, his arms were charcoal black and they were swelling up and oozing, and he could feel his face doing the same. Fifty per cent of his body was burned.

“The pain is excruciating. There is no way in hell I could possibly explain to you what that pain felt like. I kept screaming ‘Please let me die,’” he said.

For two months, Morecraft had to undergo debriding where he was lowered by crane into a huge stainless steel tank to peel off all the dead skin.

“Unfortunately, all the live skin comes with it and nerve endings come with it and the screams in the tanking room are horrendous — my own screams and the screams of the other people that were in there.”

Following the incident, Morecraft had to wear a special mask and suit for one full year. He subsequently underwent between 20 and 30 operations, including extensive plastic surgery.

By his own admittance, he did not deal with the accident well and it took a toll on his two daughters and his marriage, which resulted in divorce.

“Everything I had, I lost in one split second. You can’t afford an accident and your families can’t afford an accident.”

Morecraft made it clear that something like this could happen in any workplace at any time.

“That refinery, that blank, that chemical, that job had absolutely nothing to do with this accident. What caused this accident was my attitude towards safety. If you have the same attitude I had, these things will happen to you. The circumstances may be different but the feelings are exactly the same.”

Morecraft’s final message was that front-line workers need to be held accountable for their own health and safety. They need to follow proper procedures and wear their personal protective equipment.

“So many people think it’s the responsibly of management, the safety department or government to keep them safe. It’s our responsibility.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Canadian Occupational Safety.