The Days We Will Remember for the Rest of Our Lives
By: Ricky Rollins (Originally published in the spring 2020 issue of the Leader magazine.)
Stories are the things that I seem to be able to remember the best and get the most out of in my life. In my 36 years in the industry, I have sat in many meetings, listening to information that I am sure was important. But I can’t remember any of that information today. On the other hand, I saw Charlie Morecraft’s presentation video over 20 years ago, and I can still tell you what happened to Charlie.*
Today, I am a motivational safety speaker, which means I am a storyteller. I found out four years ago that people thought my stories could make a difference if I would share them.
DECEMBER 30, 1995
On December 30, 1995, I was inspecting a 40 foot tall combustion chamber from a manlift (that we had been having issues with the day before). Running the manlift that day was Dale Baldwin, who had just come to work on the construction phase of the building of a new steel mill and had no prior steel mill experience. We were about 20 feet off the ground, when suddenly I have my left hand grasping the handrail of the manlift, and my right hand on my head—blood pouring down my face and body.
Dazed and unsure of what just happened, I stood in the basket with Dale beside me. Then I heard him make a call on the radio, “Ricky is injured in the combustion chamber.” The call comes back, “Does he need an ambulance?” I took my hand away from my head and turned to Dale, his eyes lit up, “Yes he needs an ambulance!” A piece of slag (waste matter separated from metal during smelting) had been stuck in the top of the combustion chamber, broken loose and hit me in the head. Thankfully I was wearing my PPE, and I am sure my hard hat saved my life that day.
As I was getting into an ambulance, my wife Debbie was receiving the call that no one wants to ever get, “Ricky was injured at work and they are bringing him to the hospital.” The EMT saved my life that day in the hospital. Generally, when an EMT saves a life it is at the scene of the accident or on the way to the hospital. But this instance was different. The emergency room doctor had shot my cuts up with Novocaine and was getting ready to stitch my head up and send me home, when the EMT said, “Hey doc, his head looks a little misshapen. It just looks off.” The doctor said, “Well sometimes guys with bald heads look a little weird anyway.” But the EMT insisted, “His wife is in the emergency waiting room. Let’s bring her in and see what she thinks.”
Debbie agreed that something didn’t look right. They took me back for testing and later the doctor emerged and said, “Mrs. Rollins, you were right. Your husband’s skull is crushed on the right side and a piece of his skull is pushing against his brain.”
I was transferred to a hospital in Fort Wayne, IN, for my surgery, which ended up being a success. I was in the hospital for several days and missed several weeks of work, but I didn’t give the accident much thought at that point. I just knew I needed to get back to work. We were building a new steel mill, and I had been hired as the Refractory Supervisor. No one else at that mill knew how to do my job. They needed me back at work, and I never gave the potential consequences of my actions that day much consideration.
About a week after the accident, Debbie came home from picking up our son, Grant, from nursery school and I could tell something was wrong. I asked her about it, and she broke down crying. A stranger had asked her about the accident out at the new steel mill. Debbie broke down crying to this lady, telling her it was her husband and he was almost killed. Debbie had never shown me those tears over almost losing me. That’s what changed everything. I finally realized it was not about me, but about my family. I had three small children and a wife that loved and depended on me, and I almost cost us everything.
That accident was my fault—plain and simple. All I wanted to do was get in there and, “get er done.” I put no hazard identification into what I was doing. That furnace was a complete new radical design. Nothing like the ones I had worked on in the past. I almost cost my family all the things we love while our children were growing up. The Christmases, birthdays, ball games, dance recitals and the graduations of my children. When all they want is to make their mother and father proud of them—I almost missed it all.
But December 30, 1995, was the luckiest day of my life, and not because I wasn’t killed. On that day, in a game of Russian Roulette of life, I pulled out the revolver, opened the cylinder, put a bullet in, spun it, slammed the cylinder closed, and put the gun to another man’s head. Dale Baldwin had no reason to question what I had told him to do, taking me in the manlift into that chamber. He was with Ricky Rollins, a supervisor that had done this type of work his whole life. He put his life in my hands and I in return put the gun with a bullet in it to his head, pulled the trigger and it clicked. That was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me in my life. If the piece of slag that almost killed me had hit Dale and he had died, how could I have lived with myself? All the things that I came to realize I had almost cost my family, I almost cost another man and his family those same things. Everything we do matters. It matters to us and our circle and to the person bedside us and their circle. The consequences of our actions better be something we can live with, because I know if Dale Baldwin had died that day there was no way I could have lived with that fact. Please take time to evaluate the jobs we are performing every day, and if we are not sure, don’t do it. Get some help and come up with a plan that everyone feels will be safe.
I ask everyone to influence others and to let others influence you. They are only giving advice because they care.
I ask everyone to influence others and to let others influence you. They are only giving advice because they care. This is the brother’s keeper culture. For example, the doctor in the emergency room during my accident. We often put doctors up on a pedestal; however, this doctor put his pride, ego and stubbornness aside and listened to the EMT when he told him that my head didn’t look right. If he hadn’t listened to the EMT that day, chances are I would have gone home, fallen asleep and never woken up. Listen to the people in your circle, you never know when listening might change a life.
HOW A 17-YEAR-OLD GIRL CHANGED A STEEL MILL’S SAFETY POLICY
SEPTEMBER 20, 2005
On September 20, 2005, I was enjoying an evening at home with my family. Back then I was the department manager of a steel mill melt shop. The phone rang, and it was my co-worker, Arron, telling me that our colleague, Kelly Stillberger, had been run over with a forklift. My stomach flipped and my heart stopped. When I heard those words, I pictured a forklift running over Kelly, and I knew something like that was not survivable. I was silent for a few seconds and finally asked a question knowing I did not want the answer: “How bad is it? Is it life threatening?” Arron said it wasn’t life threating, but Kelly’s leg was mangled. I jumped into my car and when I got to the mill, they were putting Kelly into an ambulance—while Kelly’s wife was receiving the call no one ever wants.
I arrived at the hospital and walked into the room with Kelly’s family. Eventually the doctor asked us if we wanted to see Kelly. His parents, wife and I went into the examining room. While we were talking to both the doctor and Kelly, the doctor did something unexpected. Pulling back the sheet covering Kelly, he showed us his leg. It was a scene that will never leave my memory and I knew Kelly’s life was forever altered. Kelly was in the hospital for two and a half weeks, and then a rehab hospital for another two and a half weeks. He underwent five surgeries on his leg and six months of rehab before he was released to come back to work. He never complained or asked anyone to feel sorry for him. It was a life-changing time for Kelly.
A man named Preston Taylor worked with Kelly and told his family about the incident. Right away Preston’s daughter, Rachel, said “Dad, why don’t you wear orange like the hunters do?” For nine years Rachel had watched her dad leave for work wearing his green flame-retardant clothes, but she knew he would be more visible in orange.
A few days later, Preston Taylor and I were in the furnace pulpit, when he told me what Rachel had pointed out to him. I told Preston that Rachel was right—we should be wearing orange like hunters. In 1995 orange flame-retardant clothing had just started surfacing on the market, and I had seen some worn by a contractor at our mill, so I knew it would be possible to switch. We changed to orange jackets right away (and pants later on). However, the point of this story is not that everyone should be wearing orange. The point of this story is that if a 17-year-old girl can change a steel mill’s safety policy, what can we all improve in our lives to be safer for ourselves and the people we love? If Rachel Taylor, who has never seen the inside of a steel mill, can change a steel mill’s safety policy, there has to be at least one thing each of us can do to be a little safer each day.
My final point: who among us would appreciate a 17-year-old telling us how to do our jobs? But it’s what happened to me. I had 25 years in the mills, and I decided to listen to a 17-year-old. You never know where an amazing idea is going to originate. All Rachel wanted was for what happened to Kelly to never happen to her own dad.
FEBRUARY 18, 2009
On February 18, 2009, Jim Harris, who was an electrician in the melting department at the steel mill where I worked, was burned on over 40 percent of his body and almost died. I was up on the furnace deck when it happened and ran into the room shortly after. The image of what I saw and felt that day will never go away.
Walking into the hospital room, and facing Jim’s family, is something I will never forget. The doctor told us that sometimes people much less burned than Jim didn’t make it. I was Jim’s department manager, and everyone wanted to know what had gone wrong that day. I already knew the answer, but I couldn’t tell his family until we officially completed the accident investigation. Facing his family was one of the worst feelings I have ever had in my life. The only reason Jim was in this situation was because we failed to do our jobs properly—not just once, but twice.
Jim was filling in for another electrician that I had given three days off from work. Little did we know that two days prior, the other worker had not followed protocol. He had failed to lock out a piece of equipment. Jim volunteered to fill in on that man’s job for the next two days and on the day of the accident, Jim was called to make a repair in our PACS room (circuit breaker for the electric arc furnace transformer). Jim made the repair, came out of the room and was going up a flight of stairs to the furnace deck. Simultaneously, a ladle with 165 tons of 3,000-degree steel was rolled out into the ladle bay, and it erupted. This sent molten steel and slag over a wide area. Jim happened to be in that area, and his exposure time on the stairway to the eruption was five seconds. If the previous electrician had done his job by locking out the equipment two days before, he would have been the one responding to the problem in the PACS room that day. The odds that the other electrician would have been in the five-second window of the eruption were 99.99 percent unlikely. Think of the irony of Jim being burned because of another man’s safety violation. That was the first time we did not do our jobs correctly.
The reason the ladle erupted was the second time we didn’t do our jobs properly. We took a shortcut to keep production going, which caused the ladle eruption. We didn’t want to shut production down for 30 minutes that day—which almost cost Jim Harris his life, Kelly Harris her husband and Spencer, Dillon and Blake Harris their father. Neither of the two men who didn’t do their jobs properly had any idea what the result of their actions would be. All the little things we do every day have standard operating procedures (SOPs) that must be followed. The SOPs are there for a reason. This was probably not the first time we took this shortcut, but it was the first time it had consequences. Jim Harris paid the price for the shortcut taken that day, and we learned that you can never put production in front of safety.
A New Motto
After Jim’s incident we came up with the motto, “We will never remember how many tons we made today. What we will remember is the day someone gets seriously injured… That will be the day we’ll remember the rest of our lives.” Four years ago, our company’s safety summit, which included all the company’s safety personnel, was being held at my mill. This motto had never spread to the other facilities, and I told our plant safety team that I wanted to get this motto out to the rest of the company’s sites. Banners featuring the motto were made and given to each person at the safety summit to take back to their facility.
At my company’s safety summit, I told the above story about Jim, as well as the story of my own workplace accident. It was very emotional for me to tell these stories as I had never spoken about my accident or Jim’s until that day. Several people came up to me and commented that I should be telling the stories to our entire company. I couldn’t leave my job to go to many facilities we had, so we sent out a video that our sites could share during safety meetings.
A couple months after I talked at our safety summit, Chad Hymas* came to our facility to talk to us about safety. I was moved by Chad’s presentation and started thinking maybe I could make a difference in the world like Chad was, by telling mine and Jim’s stories. I was 60 years old and decided to retire from the steel industry and start telling these stories. I now travel around the United States hoping to get people to understand that all the little things they decide to do, or not do, could have unbelievable consequences for themselves or the people around them.
* Charlie Morecraft survived a refinery explosion and is now a professional safety speaker.
*Chad Hymas is a safety speaker who was also featured in the Spring 2019 issue of the Leader magazine.