A Casualty of Work
Survivor Spencer Beach works to help companies in Alberta stay safe
by Lauren Den Hartog
Photograph by Curtis Trent
*Warning, a graphic image is contained below*
The words “get it done” have taken on new meaning for Spencer Beach. They were among the last instructions he received from his employer on April 24, 2003, at a routine job site in Edmonton’s Rutherford Close neighbourhood. Beach, a floor-layer by trade, was there to replace a linoleum floor because the homeowner didn’t like the colour of the original. It was a job he had performed many times and he knew the risks well, especially those involved with using a highly toxic solvent called Roberts 1901, used to dissolve the adhesive that held the linoleum to the subflooring.
Once inside the home, Beach began, as he always did, by turning down the furnace and opening the doors and windows for ventilation. Although he should have been wearing leather gloves to protect his hands, he opted to leave the gloves under the seat of his car because they left his hands hot and sweaty, making it difficult to manipulate his tools.
For the next few hours, he focused on the task at hand. Every so often the wind would shut one of the doors and he’d have to stop what he was doing, get up and open it again. Anxious to finish work for the day, Beach looked forward to planning a stag party for a good friend later that night.
With only 12 square feet of flooring near the home’s front entrance to finish before calling it a day, Beach closed the front door. At the same time he heard the door to the garage – which he had opened earlier that day – blow shut. Knowing he’d be finished in the next 15 minutes or so, he decided that it wasn’t worth worrying about.
He was wrong.
Seconds later, he heard a loud explosion and was immediately surrounded by flames. He reached for the door handle in front of him, but the fire had created a vacuum inside the house and the door wouldn’t budge. Blinded by the scorching heat, Beach ran down the hallway toward the laundry room and eventually found the door to the garage. It wouldn’t budge, either.
By now, he could smell his hair and clothes burning and feel the skin on his face tightening around his bones. He ran back to the front door and pulled desperately on it, but it still wouldn’t open. The fire raging inside the house was now at 1,500 degrees and Beach could feel his skin bubbling from the heat.
No more than 20 seconds had passed since the explosion. Beach, unable to get either of the doors to open, curled into a ball on the floor and prepared for death. He distinctly remembers being flooded by a feeling of peace and a sense that time was slowing down. But he also remembers thinking of his wife, Tina, who was four months pregnant, and the burden that his death would place on his family. And so, one last time, he reached for the now red-hot door handle and pulled with everything he had. This time it opened, and Beach fell several feet into a pile of highly flammable construction garbage, including the linoleum flooring he had just removed. Now completely engulfed in flames, he stood up and ran down the driveway. Two-thirds of the way down it, he collapsed.
A man standing at the end of the driveway turned his garden hose on Beach, and a woman, a nurse, knelt beside him and told him an ambulance was on its way. She asked Beach his name and if he was married. Beach told her he was, and that his wife was pregnant. He could smell charred flesh. His lips felt swollen and strange. He wondered about his fingers, his toes and his ears. “My life is over,” he remembers thinking to himself.
For the next six weeks, Beach remained in a medically induced coma at the Firefighters Burn Treatment Unit at the University of Alberta Hospital. After that, he had to overcome months of surgeries, an addiction to painkillers and an overwhelming feeling of depression. Cadaver skin had been stapled to 90 per cent of his body, with only the skin on his groin, knees and the bottom of his feet surviving the fire.
“I’ve been to hell and back,” Beach tells a roomful of employees with the Alberta Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS) at their annual safety day meeting earlier this year. When he shares his story, Beach doesn’t focus only on the things his employer, who faced 12 different charges under Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act as a result of the accident, should have done. He also talks about what he, as the employee, failed to do – from not taking the time to be safe on the job site to failing to use his personal protective gear, the pair of gloves he left in his car that day.
After his recovery, Beach returned to school to earn his National Construction Safety Professional certificate. Although he receives full benefits from the Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB), he can’t imagine not working. He now devotes most of his time to giving talks on workplace safety across North America.
Over the years, Beach has met thousands of injured workers and says some find it difficult to acknowledge their own responsibility when it comes to safety on the job site. “The people that are injured and have the best attitudes know what they did,” he says. “The ones that are the angriest are those that blame everyone else.”
With another oil sands-driven boom underway in Alberta, the province is set to attract tens of thousands of workers in the coming years to fill positions in various sectors. Safety can often be a secondary consideration under those circumstances, which is why the government recently made some changes to workplace safety legislation and enforcement procedures. Since January 2010, Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk has ramped up targeted workplace inspections, most recently at commercial construction sites and places where powered mobile equipment such as forklifts are used. Over 200 orders were issued during those inspections, including 39 stop-work orders and 12 stop-use orders at commercial construction sites. Earlier this summer, the province identified 181 workplace safety violations at 118 job sites that employ young people.
These inspections come after a scathing report released last year by Alberta’s acting auditor general, Merwan Saher. The report found that the province’s Certificate of Recognition (COR) program, a voluntary safety accreditation program, was being abused. Normally, COR holders are entitled to rebates from the WCB if their health and safety programs meet established standards. However, the auditor general’s report pointed to examples where certificates had been handed out to employers who had disregarded safety rules.
In Alberta, a COR is required for a company to bid on most large contracts and most government contracts, but Lukaszuk discovered that there was nothing to ensure that the practices of COR holders were actually in accordance with the program’s requirements. “I did notice a gap in legislation,” Lukaszuk says. The resulting changes to the program, effective July 1, include an employer review process in the case of fatality, serious injury or incident. A review will also be launched if two or more work orders have been issued within a 12-month period or if occupational health and safety officers determine possible health and safety issues at a job site. If any of these cases, companies must develop an action plan focused on workplace improvements. If a second incident occurs within two years, the employer must conduct an external audit and achieve a score of 80 or higher or else lose its certificate.
According to Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan, Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, first proclaimed on Dec. 1, 1976, is not that different from health and safety legislation in other parts of Canada. The real problem, he says, isn’t with the act but with its enforcement. “Many violators are not even found because the government is not doing nearly enough inspections,” he says.
Alberta has 102 officers who conduct those inspections and has plans to hire 30 additional officers over the next three years. But McGowan says even with the new inspectors, the province will only be getting back to where it was prior to the mid-1990s, when the government of then-Premier Ralph Klein made significant cuts to what was then the labour department. “We’ve never really recovered from those cuts,” McGowan says, adding that the targeted workplace inspection announced by Lukaszuk represent a move in the right direction, but that government should be doing more to ensure compliance with the regulations. “There simply are too many employers in too many industries who are not taking safety seriously, and these targeted inspections demonstrate this problem,” he says.
Gary Wagar, the executive director of the Alberta Construction Safety Association (ACSA), deals with workplace safety issues all the time. In 2010, the construction sector had 9,866 disabling injury claims, the highest number in the province. Of the 46,000 companies that fall under the ACSA’s umbrella, only 5,000 are COR-certified. According to Wagar, COR holders have a 40 per cent lower lost time claim rate than non-COR holders in his industry.
But despite the industry’s propensity for serious injury and the success of the COR program at reducing workplace risks, Wagar doesn’t think the government can make Alberta’s workplaces safer with the stroke of a pen. “I don’t think you can force people through legislation to work safely,” he says. “I think the best thing you can do is to have companies come in on a voluntary basis and want to work safely.” Lukaszuk agrees. “If they buy in voluntarily, then on a voluntary basis they maintain their standards. If you force them to have it, then you have to continuously force it and double-check.”
With Alberta’s next boom already underway, the AFL’s McGowan is adamant that the government must continue investing in workplace health and safety programs, including education, inspection and enforcement. “If we don’t, we’re simply going to relive the experience of the last boom, which was characterized by a dramatic increase in workplace injuries and fatalities,” he says.
For his part, Beach has reinvented himself as a motivational speaker, working to encourage employees and employers to operate safely. He believes everything needed to prevent workplace injuries is already laid out in the province’s legislation. The challenge, he says, is getting employers – all of them – to truly takethe issue of workplace safety seriously. “Even now, there are many industries that still do not have safety systems or believe in them,” he says. “If we’re really going to stop incidents across the board, we have to have the whole board at play, and we’re not there yet.”