Creating Memories with Safety
Our memories speak volumes and they represent footprints in our lives that mold who we are. Over the years, I have been blessed with incredible experiences with my family, and those memories have had a powerful influence on my life. I value those recollections, but there is one family memory that I have lost. I never had the opportunity to meet or talk to my Grandfather, Elbert Collins Lynn, better known as “EC.” I have heard a few interesting stories that describe him, and I have seen pictures of my Grandfather, but unfortunately, every recollection of him is at best second hand and watered down by years of his absence. “EC” is a memory that I wish I had firsthand, but unfortunately the memory is lost.
My most prevalent secondhand memory of my Grandfather is that he was a carpenter by trade and he traveled around working on constructions jobs. I do not know what types of jobs or what types of projects, but I do know that one project led him to Kingsport, Tennessee in 1961. The details of this project have always been sketchy and brief, but the ending is always consistent. My grandfather was building forms around a column when a cement truck backed over him crushing him under the wheels. The accident claimed his life that day at 9:15 am on September 27, 1961. He was only 44 years old and my father was a freshman in college when he heard the news. My Uncle James and Uncle Dan (EC’s brothers) drove to Newberry College in South Carolina to break the news to my Dad. Can you imagine what went through my Dad’s head when my two Uncles appeared unexpectedly? The timing and nature of the accident was obviously tragic, and I have always been curious about knowing more about the details of that day, a day that stole a memory from me.
My Dad has only shared a few details that he recollects about the event. The cement truck backed over my Grandfather. Now, many times when my Dad hears a back-up alarm on a truck, he thinks about how that could have been the difference in life and death for my Grandfather. Many people in my family feel like the accident is one reason we have back-up alarms today. The other memory that he shares is that the owner of the prominent construction company, Charlie Daniel, personally wrote him a letter offering him his condolences. My Dad shared that “Big Charlie” himself promised him that if he ever needed a job, he could work at Daniel International, affectionately know in my family as “Daniels Construction.” My Dad never pursued the offer, but he always speaks of the letter with respect and appreciation because “Big Charlie” himself took the time to write him a letter. My Dad lost the letter years ago, but the letter remains one of the focal points of his recollection of the event. Even though the details of the event have been limited, I have always recognized that this one single moment stole a memory that I can never retrieve.
If we look hard enough, every tragedy will reveal its own unique irony. In my case, I have always thought it odd that I work in the safety field. I started working with South Carolina OSHA in 1991 and from the moment I was hired, I realized I was in a profession that could have impacted my Grandfather’s life and possibly enabled memories that have since been lost. The irony never stopped me in my tracks, but as I learned more about OSHA requirements, I always felt that there was a unique paradox in what I was doing. As a Compliance Officer with OSHA, I even issued citations for vehicles without back-up alarms. I recognized that I had the power to influence an environment in a way that could prevent what happened to my Grandfather from happening to someone else. The influence had the authority to create memories rather than steal them.
As my career progressed, I managed safety at two manufacturing facilities and eventually I was blessed with the opportunity to interview with one of the safest companies in the world, the Fluor Corporation. The moment that the opportunity arose, the irony of my Grandfather’s death and my profession rose to a new level. For you see, not only did I work in a field that had the power to influence safety, now, I had the chance to work for the company where my Grandfather died. The idea felt weird. In November of 2004, I accepted the HSE Regional Manager’s position and began working with Fluor. When I walked in the doors of Center One in Greenville, South Carolina, I could not help but wonder what my Grandfather would think. Yet another memory lost.
The paradox does not end with my employment with Fluor. After being at Fluor for three months, the Tennessee Eastman project requested that I conduct a Safety Audit at their facility. I quickly learned that the project was in Kingsport, Tennessee and that small bit of information prompted me to ask, “How long have we been at this facility?” The answer was eerie. We have been on this site since the early 1960s. The answer did not confirm that this was where my Grandfather died, but the response sure did peak my interest and the fact made me uneasy.
I arrived on site eager to do a good job with the audit, but I was unsure how I would satisfy my curiosity. After all, how do you tell a project that your Grandfather may have been killed on this site years ago? Broaching the subject was a little awkward, but after I got to know the Leadership Team on-site, I couldn’t help but ask, “Is there anyone still around that worked here in 1961?” I shared the motivation behind the question and the Leadership Team at Tennessee Eastman responded positively. They helped me find a man that was there the day my Grandfather died. I did not think that was possible, and the reality was numbing. The Safety Staff arranged for James Johnson (J.J) to talk to me. That was an interview that I never expected. What questions do you ask in such an unexpected interview? Despite my anxiety, I discovered that the unanticipated opportunity was a blessing that drew me closer to the memory that I was seeking.
I met with J.J. and he told me that the accident did not happen at the Eastman Plant. He said that it happened down the road at another Daniel International project. We were building the Greenland Glass Plant (now ACG) in Kingsport, Tennessee when the incident occurred. He said he did not witness the accident, but he was on site when it happened, and he remembered the project shut down for the day after the accident. James described how the cement truck was backing down a narrow portion of the building to make a pour around the base of a column, and for some unknown reason, my Grandfather was unable to move out of the way. These simple details not only captured the essence of what I have always heard, but the conversation closed a loop in my curiosity. I had the opportunity to talk to someone that was there in 1961. That chance to build on a lost memory meant a lot to me.
As I drove back to Greenville after my visit, my “lost memories” began to take on new meaning. Through the irony of my experiences, I have slowly begun to understand that memories are not only lost but they are created. Memories are created by every individual’s dedication and commitment to executing projects with safety excellence. Every measure of safety excellence has the opportunity to shape our quality of life for the future and fashion memories that last generations. Our vigilance to achieve “0” injuries is not about a faceless number. The reality is that the finite number “0” represents an infinite number of memories and experiences that bless the lives of people today. I challenge you today to consider the memory that I lost and make it your goal to create future memories for the people you work with every day. Your commitment to safety today creates memories tomorrow.