Safety First

Rob Vetter: A (Trainer’s) Christmas Story

Sunday, 20 December 2009 ( #442 )
As thoughts turn to holidays and good times, it's a great time to remember safety.
As thoughts turn to holidays and good times, it's a great time to remember safety. PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK
Rob Vetter is technical director and managing partner with the Ives Training Group, in Blaine, WA, USA, a leader in North American mobile equipment training systems since 1981.
If I have told you this story before, forgive me. If not, it's worth repeating as this is a personal experience I had one Christmas Day that shook me to my core as a safety professional. It was 1999 and life was good. I was beginning my fourth year as a staff trainer with IVES and in March of that year my wife and I had been blessed with our first child - a daughter, and my little angel. I didn't know it yet, but I had become dangerously complacent in my dedication to safety off the job, which was particularly ironic considering my profession as a safety trainer and the ongoing memory of a dear friend I lost to a workplace accident 18 years before. He was taken away literally at the speed of light after contacting an energised power line while working from a rooftop. I thought of him often (and still do), and at this most merry time of year, my memories of him were just a bit more poignant. I wonder what his family, especially his parents, who were hit the hardest by his passing, remember of him on Christmas Day. Anyway, that Christmas morning started off with my wife and I exchanging a few gifts. Our most precious gift was buried under a mound of wrapping paper and packaging that she found infinitely more entertaining than anything that was in it. We called friends and family to exchange our best wishes and cheer, then ate breakfast and got ready to go over to my in-laws' place, about an hour's drive away. As we packed the minivan with gifts, a child, the dog, etc., my wife handed me a casserole dish filled with something wonderful that I planned to make disappear later that day. I took the casserole and reached across my daughter, who was belted into her car seat, and carefully placed it on the floor. I didn't want to spill anything on the spotless interior I had laboured so long and hard cleaning the previous day. The drive was nasty. Blustery wind, snow and icy roads added about 30 minutes to the trip. When we got there, we unloaded the minivan in record time. Minutes later, we were lounging in front of the fireplace enjoying the day. About half an hour later, my wife asked me where I had put the casserole dish we brought. I didn't recall bringing it into the house so I put on my shoes and ran out to the van to check if it was there. I slid the side door open and sure enough, there was the casserole dish - right on the floor where I had left it. I reached across my daughter's car seat and grabbed it. As I backed out of the van with the dish in hand, my elbow struck the car seat and that's when it happened. The car seat moved, more than it should have. I put the casserole down, grasped the car seat and pulled it toward me. To my horror, it came away from the seat. A wave of nausea overcame me as I realised I had never anchored it back in place after I removed it to clean the interior the day before. In an instant, my head was swimming with terrible thoughts. Images of what could have happened if there had been a collision. That Christmas Day could have been the last day of my little angel's life. What kind of safety professional was I to make such a basic mistake? What kind of father was I to do such a careless thing? How would this special day be forever tainted by the tragic memory of the scenario that could have played out? It was then that it hit me, like a piano from a roof. I got a glimpse of what my dearly departed buddy's parents might be feeling at that very moment. My entire concept of safety was re-arranged within my mind within those 30 seconds that morning. Safety wasn't a work thing; it wasn't something you turned on and off like a tap. It was a life philosophy that had to be completely accepted and absorbed to the point of becoming a fundamental component interwoven within the mind and spirit. As my mind whirled and reeled within this paradigm-shifting moment, I was startled back to reality by the sound of my wife's voice calling from the house to see if I was alright. "Yeah," I thought to myself. "Now, I'm alright. But I wonder how his parents are."