A Hand Was Dealt

The story of a survivor of an industrial explosion and how he dealt with his fate.

Jim* and I sat down recently to talk in a Wendy's restaurant over a cup of coffee. He is a survivor of the explosion of the Ford Rouge powerhouse Feb. 1, 1999, in Dearborn, Mich.

Jim was burned severely: first-, second- and third-degree burns over more than half of his body. You can still see the line on his back where his underwear protected him for a fraction of a second before it was burned off.

A huge man -- at least 6 feet, 6 inches tall and thick-boned -- Jim was wearing a body stocking and support hose to protect his damaged skin and reduce swelling. He would go in for one of many skin grafts the following week. He has had many such operations in the year and a half since the explosion and fire at the Rouge Steel powerhouse.

A hand was dealt to him. He drew a pair of deuces; not good enough to win, but enough to live. Six people died that day.

"I worked at Rouge Steel since 1974," he told me. "It was always dangerous. They never maintained anything. They didn't listen to suggestions. They were always looking to save a penny. Maybe the big bosses didn't care about such small amounts, but the supervisors did. I told them the coal dust would build up on the insulation, but they didn't listen.

"I refused dangerous work, but there was always something -- the elevator didn't work, seals leaked oil so fast we could hardly keep up, the catwalk had no rails and we always had to go up there. Some workers just didn't do the dust cleanup that you need for safety.

"But it was good work, with friends, a steady job with good pay. The company has been good to me. They gave me a copy of [an internal] accident report. Mr. William Clay Ford embraced me. He said I would get the finest in medical care, and I have gotten it."

Now Jim is happy, even content.

To those of you who have not gone through such a trauma, personally or through your workers or your family, that may seem strange. Yet, there is such gratitude in being a survivor that words are inadequate to express the feelings.

There is also survivor's guilt because six co-workers died that day. Donald Harper, a 58-year-old pipefitter, died on the spot. Cody Boatwright, a 51-year-old welder, died four days later. Warren Blow, a 51-year-old power service operator, died 11 days later. Ken Anderson, a 44-year-old pipefitter; John Arseneau, a 45-year-old pipefitter; and Ron Maritz, a 46-year-old supervisor; died two to three weeks after the accident.

Five of them died in the University of Michigan Trauma Burn Center. Arseneau died in Bed 33. I talked to the nurses. We looked at the bed in which he died. In the Trauma Burn Center, some wake up, some don't. Arseneau didn't. A hand was dealt. Some lived. He died.

A Heavy Price to Pay

Ford settled with each survivor for a reported $1 million each. After more than 20 years of hard work in the Rouge powerhouse, Jim is "retired." He has a large, relatively new house. He is having carpenters put in hardwood floors. He drives a Navigator. His wife drives an F-350 with a cab in the back. They don't want to be injured in a motor vehicle accident after all they went through.

Make no mistake about it: They all went through it -- his wife and two daughters.

When his eldest daughter saw him in the Trauma Burn Center, she ran crying from the room. His wife paid an enormous price during the last year. She sat with him when he was burned to a crisp. She held his hand (as much as she could, given the burned skin) and supported him when it was time for another skin graft.

Wives and children pay a price. They feed Daddy when he can't feed himself. They pray and cry at his bedside. Jim wasn't expected to live. His wife had to deal with that.

Jim lived but was expected to lose both of his hands. A hand was dealt. It came up aces. He has both hands, and they work!

Now Jim can give some of that love back. You want to know why he is happy? After more than 20 years of working at Rouge, he is financially comfortable. He can spend time with his family. He can afford a college education for his daughters. He can spend time volunteering at the Trauma Burn Center to help the injured and go to workplaces to talk about the importance of protecting workers' health and safety.

The way Jim has given some love back to the community reminds me of a comment by author Mitch Albom in Tuesdays With Morrie: "A meaningful life will not be found in the next job or the next car. The way you get meaning in your life is to devote yourself to helping others and creating something that gives you purpose."

Jim has another skin graft coming up. He also is worried about the asbestos that was thrown into the air during the explosion. He understands that the concentration was high enough so that investigators had to wear respirators when they went into the site days later. Still another hand was dealt. What will happen?

Who's to Blame?

What hand was dealt to company officials and safety professionals who had the responsibility and the authority to ensure a safe workplace at the powerhouse? What career-ending disasters befell them? How many sleepless nights will they spend during their retirements?

A hand was dealt. No, that is wrong. The safety professionals, company officials or someone in the company dealt the hand themselves. Little by little, the hand was dealt over many years as there were many poor decisions by management that they failed to overturn. It was a losing hand. Yet, none of them suffered physical burns. None of them had a daughter run crying from their room in the hospital.

Did company safety professionals fail to recognize hazards and act to correct them, or did management ignore their recommendations? I believe that the record shows that their recommendations were ignored. What, then, are your personal ethical responsibilities as a safety or industrial hygiene professional when you find yourself in a "broken" management system?

Next time, let's make the workers happy. Protect life and property by taking action to prevent disasters.

Contributing editor Steven P. Levine, Ph.D., CIH2, is president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. He is a professor of environmental health sciences and co-director of the University of Michigan WHO Collaborating Center for Occupational Health.

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