Randy Royall detests complacency.
Twenty-five years after a work accident left him temporarily paralyzed from the waist down, Royall blames it for the tragic event that permanently altered the course of his life.
"I had become complacent," Royall told a nearly full house during a Day 2 session of the 2013 National VPPPA Conference in Nashville.
"And what I hate about complacency is that it's in this room right now. You can't see it, you can't smell it, you can't touch it, you can't feel it, you can't hear it, and it's all around you all the time," Royall said.
"And before you know it, it sneaks up on you and bites you square in the ass."
Royall, who swore like a sailor throughout his talk – no F-bombs were dropped, though – recalled how his complacency bit him on Oct. 7, 1987.
'I Want Yellow Roses on my Casket'
At the time of his accident, Royall was working for a "major petroleum company" ("I'm still not allowed to say their name," he said, adding that "they're not around anymore").
"I was hired in as a sandblaster/painter/welder at a rail-car repair shop, and that meant you were automatically on the hazardous-materials response team," explained Royall, who now is an EHS specialist for Chevron Phillips Chemical.
Royall headed up the team, which "handled all the hazardous-materials responses from the tip of Texas to the tip of Florida."
"We were damn good at it," he said.
On the day of the accident, Royal and his crew were eating in the lunchroom of the company's headquarters when they received a phone call asking them to respond to a leaking tank car on the rack.
Contrary to the standard procedure, Royall decided to investigate the situation by himself.
"We had a rule that you never went on a response by yourself," Royall explained. "But you see, when complacency sinks in on you, the first thing you do is think your way out of things."
A relatively new crewmember offered to go with him, but Royall insisted that the worker continue eating his lunch.
"I had it all figured out," Royall said. "But he knew better than me."
As he left the lunchroom, Royall joked to his crew: "'I want yellow roses on my casket.'"
"I didn't realize how close I would come to having yellow roses that day," Royall said.
'I'm Ready to Die'
Royall drove to the railyard and climbed to the top of the tank car to inspect the safety relief valve. Unaware that Royall was up there, an operator restored pressure to the tank car, causing the relief valve to open.
Startled, Royall jumped back and fell about 18 feet onto the rocks below.
Royall sustained life-threatening injuries, including four broken vertebrae, spinal compression, internal damage and a concussion.
During an excruciating 40 minutes on the ground, Texas fire ants ravaged his broken body.
When his wife and two sons arrived at the hospital, Royall was in so much pain that he told her, "I'm ready to die."
Lifted, perhaps, by the prayers of his loved ones, Royall survived, although he was paralyzed from the waist down for some time afterward.
His description of the accident's aftermath, however, is enough to convince even the most hardheaded, reckless safety deviants to change their ways.
"My wife quit her job to take care of me, because every four hours I had to be rolled," Royall said. "About every six hours, depending on how much fluid I had taken, she had to empty my pee bag. And she had to bring me my medication."
In his fragile condition, Royall was "a 24-hour operation," which put an enormous burden on his wife.
"But not once did the best wife in the world complain," Royall emphasized. "Not once."
Still, the accident dealt a devastating financial blow to Royall and his family. Bills piled up, and so did the eviction notices. Creditors eventually repossessed Royall's pickup truck, and the Royalls were forced to leave their home.
Even as he regained use of his legs and feet, Royall was an emotional wreck.
He was so "emotionally unstable" that his wife put him on suicide watch. She removed all of the guns and knives from the house – Royall is a hunter and gun collector – and kept his various medications in a fanny pack on her waist.
"To this day, she is still pissed at me when I told her later that I was considering suicide," Royall said. "Because as I began to drive again, I realized that if I could have a car wreck and hit that light pole, then she could keep the house and the two boys would have enough money to go to college."
Meltdown at VPPPA Conference
Some 21 months after his accident, Royall returned to full-duty work. But he carried the emotional baggage from the accident for more than 18 years.
"I had never, ever shared my story," Royall said. "And I was a very angry person. I was a complete ass. I didn't know why I was such a jerk.
"But the reason was because as many times as I've said 'I'm sorry' to my wife and my sons, I can't take away what I did to them. And I blame me. There were some other people involved, but I blame me for what I did that day. And it just ate and ate and ate at me."
In 2006, it came to a head when Royall attended a VPPPA Region VI conference in Corpus Christi, Texas.
While having dinner at a steakhouse with a group of people from his company, Royall had an emotional meltdown. The trigger was a conversation between a safety manager and an employee.
When the safety manager asked the employee what he would do if he saw someone working at heights without fall protection, the employee replied, "Nothing. If he wants to get hurt, it's his business."
The topic hit a nerve with Royall.
"I slammed the fork down and I said, 'Are you crazy?'" Royall recalled. "And he looked over at me, and I started to speak. And as I started to speak, 18 years of all this anger inside of me started coming out. And I got louder and louder and louder."
Royall said he later apologized to the employee. But the meltdown helped him realize that there were better ways to channel his anger.
Sharing his story clearly has been a cathartic experience for Royall, who now has five children, is the choir director at his church and still is married to "the best wife in the world."
Royall leverages the experience to preach about the importance of personal accountability, good communication, proper planning and other safety principles.
"I guarantee there ain't a damn job out there worth getting hurt over," Royall said. "Not when you have a wife or husband or significant other or children. There is nothing worth getting hurt over. There ain't a damn job out there."