Olympian Shares Thoughts about Workplace Safety at Summit

The survivor of a nearly fatal workplace accident who rehabilitated himself into a two-time Olympian inspired participants at the 3rd Annual Workplace Safety Summit held last week at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business Center for Business and Public Policy.

If Cliff Meidl's situation was less traumatic, it would be reminiscent of the old joke about a man who asks his doctor, "When this is over, will I be able to play the piano?" The doctor says, "Sure." The man answers, "That's good, because I don't know how to play one now."

Meidl is a true survivor, miraculously recovering from being electrocuted with 30,000 volts many times higher than an electric chair to go on to become a two-time Olympic flatwater kayaker. Before the accident, Meidl had no ambitions to be an Olympic athlete.

"No one should suffer like I did," said Meidl, who cannot run anymore and still walks with a limp, despite undergoing 15 surgical procedures in 15 months. "Nearly 6,000 Americans die and 6 million are injured or suffer illnesses annually in workplace safety incidents. That's why I have dedicated myself to educating both employers and employees about the dangers of failing to address workplace safety problems."

Meidl, now 34, was just 20 when he had his brush with death. He was working his way through college as an apprentice plumber when he was assigned the task of taking a jackhammer to an area of concrete at a job site. As he was working, the tip of his jackhammer made contact with three unmarked high-voltage electrical cables. The impact blew him out of the hole, however he fell back in and again made contact on the still-pounding jackhammer which came into contact with his knees.

This charge was so forceful that it literally exploded out of Meidl's body burning two toes, dislodging the back of his skull and scorching his knee joints, his shoulder and his back. On the scene, he went into cardiac arrest and paramedics revived him with a defibrillator before beginning his transport to the burn center. During the ambulance ride, he again went into cardiac arrest and was again revived. He suffered his third cardiac arrest episode at the burn center where he lost consciousness for two minutes before finally being revived.

Within days of the accident, Meidl was in surgery at UCLA where he had part of both calf muscles removed and attached to his severely damaged knees. After the successful surgery, Dr. Malcolm Lesavoy challenged him with the words, "I've done my 50 percent by putting your legs back together. Now, the rest of your recovery is up to you."

After hree months of hospitalization, followed by two years of supervised rehabilitation programs, he began a regimen of training that included weight lifting, riding stationary bicycles. swimming and rowing in an outrigger canoe. It took more than three years before he could walk without the aid of crutches.

It was during his time out on the water that Meidl felt that he could compete on an equal level. He decided to give the flatwater-kayaking event a try, and through hard work and determination, was able to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team in 1996 and 2000.

In addition to his role as an Olympic athlete, Meidl has taken an active role with the Construction Safety Council and the Electrical Safety Foundation International, working in behalf of both organizations' safety missions. He also works with burn survivors and fire-fighting groups, and is extremely concerned with the issue of sudden death from cardiac arrest.

Meidl believes that defibrillators should be readily available at a variety of public and private locations throughout the United States. "I'm alive today because firefighters got to me in the first two minutes," he says.

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