Every day people working in hazardous environments choose not to put on protective eyewear. Mostly, they’re fine.
Ken Woodward made this choice, but he didn’t do so well.
“I thought I might get used to being blind,” he said. “But I haven’t. I scream to see.”
It took a combination of factors to create the accident that blinded Ken, but one thing is clear: if he had been wearing safety goggles, he would have his eyesight today.
“There was a set of goggles three foot in front of me,” said Ken. “The moment I made the choice not to put them on, I destroyed my family’s normal life. I cost the company £2.6 million. I put 35 people into counseling.”
These days, Ken goes to factories and sites around the world to tell his story. His mission is to make people understand the consequences of their choices. He reckons he has met more than a million people this way. Visiting new places all the time must be tough for Ken, being blind. Construction sites and industrial plants are hostile enough. Imagine what it would be like if you cannot see. Yet Ken doesn’t complain. Because he knows his accident had disastrous consequences for other people too. For his wife. For his parents. For his children. For his colleagues at the factory who saw it happen.
“I’ve never told my daughter that three foot in front of me there was a pair of goggles. Never. If I did, she would ask one question, wouldn’t she?” Why do people decide not to put on eye protection? It is uncomfortable. It steams up and makes their job more difficult. They feel stupid wearing it. Yet in light of the possible consequences, these excuses seem feeble, illogical.
In reality, the reasons are much more complex. To find out why Ken wasn’t wearing goggles on the day of his accident, you have to look at human behaviour, at systems and policies. You have to look at how people at the factory went about their everyday business. You have to look at how they responded to warnings. You have to look at the safety culture and ask yourself “how was it possible that anyone would ever choose not to put on eye protection?”
Ken Woodward worked as a team leader on a bottling line at a global soft drinks manufacturer’s factory in Sidcup, UK.
People described the day running up to the accident as normal. They were focused on how many bottles they could produce. Could they beat what the previous shift had achieved?
Towards the end of the day, a supervisor asked Ken if he would perform a cleaning operation. The machines needed to be sterilised when the line switched from one type of drink to another. It wasn’t something Ken had done before, but he didn’t want to let the team down. He didn’t want to be the one slowing down the rate of production. It is in his nature to be helpful, so he said he’d have a go.
Ken went off to find someone to ask how the job was done. He found an experienced guy who was just ending his shift and as he walked towards the changing room to get ready to leave, he explained to Ken what to do. It was a bit of a rush. The guy was keen to get home. But it would have to do.
The chemicals used for cleaning are extremely dangerous. They are highly reactive, designed to eradicate on contact contaminants in the bottling plant. They need to be handled carefully.
Normally a proprietary chemical called Solchlor was used for the cleaning process, but the factory had run out. Instead they had been mixing caustic soda and sodium hypochlorite (the main ingredients of Solchlor) for themselves.
This was the job Ken had taken on: to mix the two chemicals in a metal canister. But what Ken didn’t know, because he had never done it before, was that the reaction between the two chemicals could be violent.
As Ken poured the second chemical in on top of the first, there was a chemical explosion that blasted 25m into the air. Ken was less than 60cm away, looking into the cylinder as he poured the second chemical. This meant that his face was directly in the path of the jet of caustic liquid.
“There was a horrendous whooshing sound,” said Ken. “But all I saw was white. It was like being on fire. My hands and my arms and my face were so hot. It’s panic. I can’t run because I can’t see. Is there anybody there? Is anybody doing anything? What can I do? And you just scream out for help.”
Fortunately, there was a safety shower adjacent to where Ken had been working and one of his colleagues had the presence of mind to bundle him into it and keep him there.
Most people who were there vividly remember Ken screaming in pain. Many are left with nightmare visions. One friend and colleague describes watching Ken in the shower and seeing his eyes turn to ping-pong balls as the chemical scorched the colour out of them.
Ken himself remembers desperately trying to understand what was happening to him.
“I was standing in the shower and trying to say to Lee ‘what’s all this in my hands’?” It was Lee who manhandled Ken into the shower. “And he couldn’t tell me. He couldn’t say a word because he knew it was all the skin off my face.”
Ken was rushed to hospital and although they did everything possible, they quickly realised Ken was going to be blind. There were months of painful procedures.
Ken’s wife Sue describes how surgeons had to take his eye out. When they remove an eye, they have to pack the space. But Ken’s eye socket was still badly burned from the chemicals, so the packing caused immense pain. “When they took this packing out it was so painful, even the consultant couldn’t stand it,” said Sue. “We were all in agony because we could see how painful it was.”
Three months later, Ken lost his other eye and his family had to go through it all again, knowing how painful it was going to be. “I had to go through a lot of painful medical treatments,” said Ken. “But none of them came anywhere near the pain when my children came into the hospital room. That was devastating for everybody.”
The company Ken worked for was prosecuted and paid the maximum fine. With compensation and lost production time, the total cost was estimated to be £2.6 million. Ken received compensation, but it was reduced because he had not followed procedures. The people who witnessed the accident still live with the trauma. Many of them ended up in counseling.
“We thought the important thing was to get the job done,” said Ken. “We didn’t understand the cost when it goes wrong.”
Martin Woodall was the expert brought in to help improve safety at the factory in the wake of Ken’s accident. “All the warning signs were there,” he said. “One guy got his face splashed. Someone else said ‘I remember these chemicals – the trick was to bang the lid on quick’. Two months before, an engineer noticed a pipe was hot that should have been cold.”
All these had the potential to become accidents but they were never reported never investigated. If they had been, people would have realised that the chemicals were reacting too quickly and becoming dangerous. They would have stopped using the mixture and Ken’s accident might never have happened.
And so it would have been irrelevant whether he was wearing eye protection. Except that Ken’s choosing not to wear goggles and the company’s not investigating previous incidents were symptomatic of the same deeper problem. They were symptomatic of a company whose culture put productivity ahead of safety.
“If we’re honest with it,” said Ken, “And I mean honest, we know what’s wrong and we know the solutions.”
He gives an example of a supervisor he met on one of his factory visits. He said he is always telling people to put on their eye protection. “Yes,” said Ken,
“But what does that tell you? It’s not succeeding. Have you asked them why they are not wearing their eye protection?”
It might not have been the right equipment. It might have been that they didn’t properly understand the benefits of wearing it, or the risks of not. They might have felt wearing eye protection compromised safety in some other way.
“You have to ask,” said Ken. “Ask them what’s not working. They’ll give you the answer and the solution as long as they don’t fear being blamed. It has to be a safety learning event rather than a non-compliance.”
Richard Davison, a consultant who works with Martin Woodall, remembers a fork-lift driver who refused to wear his safety glasses. When they asked him why not, the driver explained that the hinges on the glasses interfered with his peripheral vision and because he had limited movement in his neck, that was stopping him from seeing properly all around his cab. The solution: a different style of glasses. Now the fork-lift driver wears his eye protection every day.
“The culture in the company has to be about reporting these problems and learning from them,” said Martin Woodall. “It takes time to achieve culture change, but good safety is good business.”
Ken agrees. “People are motivated by saving time and putting more money in their pockets,” he said. “Everyone is the same. But these are also the triggers for learning and improving safety. The benefit is: if you do not injure yourself today, you can go to work tomorrow. That is 100% efficiency.”
A safe culture has to be created from the top down. Managers and supervisors have to lead by example. Understandably, personal protective equipment is a big issue for Ken. It creates problems if access to it is made difficult.
“I came across a supervisor on one of my site visits,” he said. “He was ruthless. At the end of a shift he would inspect everything and make sure it was cleaned up and stored properly. Any damage was repaired or the equipment replaced – no questions. It is just common sense. But do you know, he was the most cost effective of the lot.”
In fact, most people behave safely quite naturally. There is an incredible sidebar to Ken’s story, only discovered during subsequent investigation. Four days before his accident, a maintenance guy came across a power shower that had been hit by a fork-lift truck. It had stopped working as a result. He reported the damage in the normal way and went home.
But when he got home, he started to worry. What if someone needed the safety shower before it could be repaired? So he went back into work and fixed it, there and then. And four days later, Ken was in that very same shower washing the caustic chemical from his face. “He comes in and saves my life and he doesn’t even know about it,” Ken said.
If there had been proper systems and processes in place, Ken’s accident might never have happened. If someone had investigated the warning signs, the accident might never have happened. If Ken had worked in a culture where everyone wore their goggles without question, he would still have his eyesight. If he had simply decided that day to put on his goggles, he would still be able to see.
“Just because a job has been done one way for years doesn’t mean that the time you do it, there won’t be a big accident,” said Ken. “You can be supported, trained, have systems in place but when it comes down to it, it is up to you as an individual. If everyone adopted that attitude we’d all be much safer. It’s everyone’s responsibility.”
The most important thing for Ken is to raise awareness of the consequences.
It might be that you are fatalistic. It might be that you think it can only happen to someone else. But if an accident happens to you and you have chosen not to wear eye protection, you have to understand the consequences.
“It’s with you every day of the week,” said Ken of his blindness. “Something will happen during the day and you think ‘I’d love to see that’. When my two grandchildren were born, I was there at the hospital. I would have loved to have seen it.”
Rob Coyle is Managing Director of Lattitude Productions. Inspiring people is at the heart of his company’s philosophy. They make training films with a difference. They don’t just tell people what to do, they get people thinking. They inspire people to work in a better, safer way.
He first met Ken Woodward when he was making a health and safety film about him. People who have never seen a serious accident often believe it cannot happen to them. The film of Ken’s story is about a single accident, but it is more effective than any statistic in getting people to understand and take seriously the dangers of not wearing personal protective equipment.
Hindsight – the Official Ken Woodward Story has become a best-seller around the world and is available in 26 languages.
E: [email protected] T: +44 (0)1435 831500 W: www.lattitudeproductions.co.uk
Martin Woodall and Richard Davison are behavioural safety consultants at Lattitude Safety. W: www.lattitudesafety.co.uk
Ken Woodward now works as a motivational speaker and trainer in safety. W: www.kenwoodward.co.uk.
Published: 10th Aug 2011 in Health and Safety Middle East