The 83rd General Meeting Feature Presentation
“How a Bad Day Turned into a Good Day”
The following presentation was delivered at the 83rd General Meeting Monday morning session, May 12, by Nick Morris. It has been edited for content and phrasing.
Mr. Nick Morris endured an experience most only read about. He was involved in a refinery explosion in the Texas panhandle in February of 2007. As a result, he suffered severe burns to his hands, face, head, and airway. Incredibly, he lived through it. The accident was caused when a leak erupted from a high-pressure propane line in an old refinery unit. He literally caught on fire during his evacuation as he came between a vapor cloud and its ignition source. Witnesses testified that Mr. Morris was a walking ball of flames for two to three minutes. It was during this time he found a pothole filled with water. He was able to extinguish himself before help arrived from the plant. Mr. Morris uses his chilling experience to teach others about the importance of being safe and alert at all times.
Mr. Morris' slide presentation can be accessed here
Many of us get up and go to work each day never expecting that something will change in our everyday routines. When I got up to go to work on a February day in 2007, little did I know how drastically my life would change.
Northeast of Dumas, Texas, is a refinery where I was working. On the day of the accident, we had leaking valves up in a pipe rack. This pipe rack had one way in and one way out. I had filled out all the paperwork that was required for that day. I had two assistants working with me. Because guess what? I had a few other things working against me: it was Friday, it was payday, and as a result, I had leak repair technicians call in sick saying they just didn't feel good and couldn't come to work. But I had three valves that had to be taken care of. So being a supervisor and because of EPA regulations, I got out there with my guys. We went out to the unit and were allowed to park near our work site, because how many people love to carry their tools all over the plant?
After lunch I told my guys to get out of the truck and start getting the tools ready. I knew what I needed but I was training them and wanted to make sure they were getting the right tools. I wanted to check with the operator and make sure what we were working on was what they told me earlier when I filled out the job safety analysis (JSA) paperwork.”
The operator was working with another group and said he’d come over to the truck to meet with us when he was done. As my guys proceeded to get the tools ready, I pulled out my trusty JSA from my back pocket and started asking them questions: what are we going to be doing out there? What are the procedures we’re supposed to follow when we get to that rack? What kind of tools do we need? What kind of job steps are there? What kind of hazards might there be? And almost as if on cue, I asked, “What do we do in case there is an emergency?” And all of a sudden we heard a loud boom that sounded like a jet engine taking off.
I went to the driver's side of the truck and about 30 feet away from me I saw a huge phosphorous leak blowing out of a packing lead on a control valve. I turned to tell my guys to get out of the unit, and guess what they were doing? They were swiftly evacuating the unit. Because what's the last thing we are supposed to do in case of an emergency? Don't run; right? So as they were skedaddling out, I saw an operator coming up and I asked him if it was product or steam? As soon as he said it was product, that was all I needed to know.
I started out of the unit and looked off to the right. A group of men were looking back in my direction and they were trying to figure out what was going on. We were wearing hearing protection and it was extremely loud around us. I didn't have time to explain it to them, so I just yelled, “Get out of here, something is going on,” and I continued on.
As I came to the cooler and turned, I saw that both of my guys were in the open area. Everything was clear, so I proceeded through. Suddenly, I felt an enveloping heat take over my body. It was like a 12-hour sunburn that took effect immediately. I could feel my ears blistering up. My face felt like it was peeling backwards like you would see in a horror movie. I lifted up my hands and could see the skin melting off of them. I knew I was on fire. I went to my knees to stop, drop, and roll and realized that my face, hands, and head were the parts of my body on fire, and I was standing on asphalt and gravel. I knew I’d do more damage than good rolling around, so I stood up and had to think fast. That’s when I remembered a pothole I had always seen. I had actually turned it in as a slip, trip, and fall hazard in the past. You know the ones, the potholes they refuse to fix. I started walking quickly to get to the pothole, but I was fanning the flames. I had to tell myself two things: slow down and take short breaths because I was burning myself on the inside.
I finally made it to the pothole and threw my hands and my face in the water and rolled around. I felt the cooling effects immediately. By this time there was a second, perhaps third explosion. There were five that day. I went to get up so I could get out of the unit, and I felt excruciating pain shoot up all the way into my chest and arms. I couldn't do it on my own. Plant personnel were running to get out of the plant. I tried to yell for help, but I didn't have the air to cry out. But luckily two men came close enough to hear me. I had only met them in passing because they were contractors like me. I consider them heroes to this day. They ran past me. I took in all the air I could and I cried out, “Help me, please help me.”
Robert and Jesus turned around and saw me. Despite the raging fire, they made the decision to come back for me. Robert wrapped his arms around my waist, because it was the only place to grab hold of me. They took me from the pothole all the way up to a gate. At the gate, the plant personnel told them to get out of the plant and go to their muster location.
From the gate they took me to a sidewalk and sat me in a chair until the plant ambulance arrived. They took me over to the fire shop and started getting me ready for the helicopter ride. I woke up out of a coma two weeks later in Lubbock, Texas. Sounds like I had a pretty bad day that day, doesn't it?
By the end of this presentation, I hope to prove to you how it turned out to be a good day. I am going to play a video with narration from my wife. Even if you can't look at the pictures, I want everyone to realize that trauma doesn’t just happen to the victim, but it affects everyone, including your family.
Carmen Morris: After Nick's accident, I began a picture journal of Nick before and after his accident. I wanted everyone to have a better appreciation for life and how easily it could be traumatically disrupted. Thankfully it wasn't a fatal event for Nick, but nonetheless it changed our lives in the blink of an eye. The next series of clips I call, "Reality can be you." I have included a couple of shots of the Valero fire and its massive ball of flame and heat. It's amazing to believe that he survived this.
After Nick was burned, he had to be bandaged very carefully because he was so vulnerable to infection. It was rough seeing him unwrapped, but his wounds needed drying time. After Nick's first set of grafts, he had to go through a healing process. If you can imagine that, his hands were set in these banjoes then. They kept his fingers separated so that they couldn't touch, and then they were placed underneath a heating lamp. He was in a coma and heavily sedated with pain medications for this.
The next pictures were very difficult for me to take. Nick is in a room called the tank room. This is where all the debridement happens. Basically, the patient is stripped down, loosened of all bandages except for his ventilator, and they literally scrubbed and razored any loose or possibly dead skin. It's a very painful process, to which most are awake. This is the only instance in which I was thankful Nick was in a coma. A few days after his skin was grafted, Nick caught an infection and the new skin was not taking, so it was decided to begin wound care with these massive sponges. And his hands were literally sandwiched between and vacuum sealed to try to adhere the grafts as well as draw out the infection. Eventually it did work to a certain extent, which you will see down the line.
Nick also developed three ulcers on the back of his head and his chin, and they left basically an indention in the back of his head, but thankfully his hair grew out and covered it. In the beginning of March, the tissue on Nick's hands began to deteriorate. The skin really wouldn't adhere to his left hand. And then in April, it began to die, eventually killing the tissue, which left them literally with skin on bone. And then on the next set you will see that after about six months of extensive therapy, Nick had to have a partial amputation of his left pinky finger. It was dead and it caused him so much pain. It hurt so much that after it was removed, he never once took a prescription pain pill because it felt so much better once it was gone.
One year later he had his second set of grafts to both hands with synthetic skin, along with a third to follow with his own graft over those to ensure his body accepted them this time. They did. The last part of my picture journal is dubbed, "Who you become now after the accident." Sure, there may be more surgeries down the road, but in the meantime you begin the best of what you can and wake up with a smile on your face every day. Nick can't cry because he sustained damage to his tear ducts, and his voice and breath are limited because he was burned down to his vocal cords.
Tomorrow is never a promise to anyone, so he makes the best of what he can, and he runs with it. Thank you for being a part of my picture journal of Nick, and I hope you have an appreciation for life.
Mr. Morris: At all times be aware of your surroundings and any changes that may occur. Everybody just heard what I said, but who really listened to it? According to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2007 there were 5,657 workplace fatalities. Let me restate that. In the year 2007 according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 5,657 people who got up to go to work and never came home the same way. Whether they died that day or the days after, they lost their lives.
Of those, 152 were fire-related fatalities. I was almost 153. Fifteen percent of those fatalities are blamed on some type of mechanical failure. That leaves 85 percent of these people who died because of some type of human behavior, some shortcut that was taken, some guard that was removed, some procedure that wasn't followed, or something that somebody just didn't care enough about, that either cost them their life or another person theirs.
We can't change the past, but we are supposed to learn from it, contrary to popular belief. And even though everybody likes to think so, we can't necessarily accurately predict the future. But you know what we do have? We have the present. Today is a gift.
Are you going to be a safe person, or just a safe worker? Many of us may be engineers, we might sit behind desks, or we may actually be out there in the field. But there is a difference between being a safe worker and a safe person.
We go to these safety programs and meetings, and many times we see disgruntled workers sitting there. They throw their head back and sigh, “Safety, safety, safety, safety,” or they’ll say, “I hope they have pizza at this one.” Apathy is a lack of interest or concern for things that others find interesting. We sit in safety meetings, but are we really engaged? What's it going to take for us to grab hold to life with both hands? What kind of catastrophe will it take?
Think about distracted driving. How often do we drive down the road with cell phones in our hands and in our faces? This photo of a destroyed guardrail was taken three miles from my house in Texas: this is 150 feet of guardrail twisted up like a pipe cleaner. There are no skid marks or tire tracks. This is a true story. The last words a kid ever said or spoke was a text that said, "it sounds good, my man, see you soon. I will TW." He typed that right before he was decapitated.
What does it take for us to grab hold of life with both hands? What are you doing with your mind? Are you keeping it focused on the task at hand?
The difference between safe and unsafe people: unsafe people think they have it all together. They are defensive instead of open to feedback. They only apologize instead of changing their behavior. They avoid working on themselves to improve. They lie. They like to blame others instead of being honest and taking responsibility for their actions. Unsafe people love to gossip, and they are a negative influence on others.
Safe people, on the other hand, value connection, friendships, and responsibilities. They are neither overly dependent nor codependent on other people. They value honesty, and they willingly work on themselves to improve. And finally, a safe person could be tried, tested, and proved.
Many times I ask workers or my audience, “How can you prove that you are a safe person?” Is there a piece of paper out there that can help you?
This was the JSA I was using the day of my accident. Some paperwork, whether it be a work permit or a JSA can help prove that you are a safe person. When I worked at the plant, I carried a legal pad with my JSA and wrote down safety observations or hazards.
Once at a plant, I had to climb a tower. When I got up to the fifth level, the ladder started coming apart from the tower. I quickly scurried down and approached the operator. I asked him if he knew about the broken ladder, and he did. I asked him why he didn’t tell me about it before I climbed up there, and he said they didn’t go up that high. Does that fix the problem? No. But I am able to write those things down. Does that help prove I am a safe person? Why would somebody go through all that trouble if they weren't trying to make a difference?
Now, I'm not saying its 100 percent foolproof, but paperwork can help prove you are a safe person. Aside from paperwork, what else do we have? We have training sessions. We have personal protective equipment (PPE) and flame resistant clothing (FRC) – which is what saved my life that day. Can anybody guess how they got the FRCs off of me? The FRCs dusted right off of me and then they started icing me down. Oftentimes workers don’t wear any other clothing beneath their FRCs. I was wearing jeans, a shirt, and a sweatshirt underneath the FR material. I wouldn't be standing here today if I didn’t have those extra layers on. I have scars on my hands that show my shirt was buttoned down and zipped up. PPEs are required because they can save our lives.
Unless you make the choice to wear PPE correctly, it's worthless. You are the best tool out there. If you are not wearing the PPE correctly, you must answer for it. We need to be accountable for our own actions. A safe person is responsible for themselves. February 16th, 2007, I was involved in a refinery explosion. Before that I had become very adamant about learning safety issues in the plant. I didn't know what C3 or C4 was; I didn't know about chemicals. But instead of worrying about it, I started becoming involved.
We had a book called The Chemical Reference Dictionary, much like material safety data sheets (MSDS) that the team provided. As I was reading this, I started finding out what to do about safety. I wanted to know more about OSHA and EPA, so I started going to the library after work. My boss found out how proactive I was and he couldn’t believe I was doing it. He told me to write down my hours so he could pay me for them. I started getting involved in the plant and its safety initiatives. We formed a contractor safety council. We started getting those things fixed that nobody else would take care of.
But on February 16th, 2007, the unexpected occurred. A leak blew out. So why was it such a good day? After all that work, I still got burned. Why was it such a good day? Two guys were working for me that knew their way out of the plant. There was a rumor that some of those 12-15 guys I yelled at to get out of there weren't getting their flame resistant clothing from their employers, but rather, were buying lookalike coveralls from the local farm store. But they made it out. Two other gentlemen were burned besides me. One was a supervisor and the other one was the operator. They were going in the opposite direction and made it to the safety shower. Their burns weren't as severe.
Why was it such a good day: because nobody died. I was the worst one injured. I give God all the credit for making me intelligent enough to do the right thing when people would make fun of me for being too safe. I was that guy wearing the safety equipment when I mowed my yard at home. I was that guy who learned to make sure I was doing it the right way so people wouldn't get hurt. When kids would come over and work at my house, they wore safety equipment because I wanted them to know the right way to do it.
There is a difference between being a safe person and a safe worker. A safe person does it all the time. A safe worker only does it when he's on the job; when he's getting paid to do it. A safe person does it because he wants to. A safe worker does it because he has to. And that's my challenge to you. Are you going to be a safe person or are you going to be just a safe worker?
At least once a day across the United States a child is run over because the driver didn’t see them. This isn't just in industrial vehicles. We’ve all seen children running across parking lots, playing behind cars, or whatever it might be. Be a safe person. Take time to walk behind your cars before you jump in on the take-off, or park in a manner where you can pull out instead of back up. Make sure there is nobody there that's going to get hurt.
Think about your own families. My daughter Lilly Rose was one of my motivating tools. But I want you to think about your families as I read this poem that many of you have probably heard hundreds of times.
I could have saved a life that day
But I chose to look the other way.
It wasn't that I didn't care.
I had the time, and I was there,
But I didn't want to seem a fool,
Or argue over a safety rule.
I knew he'd done the job before,
And if I called it wrong, he might get sore.
The chances didn't seem that bad.
I've done the same, and he knew I had.
So I shook my head, I walked on by –
He knew the risks as well as I.
He took the chance, I closed an eye,
And with that act I let him die.
I could have saved a life that day,
But I chose to look the other way.
Now every time I see his wife,
I'll know I should have saved his life.
That guilt is something I must bear,
But it isn't something you need share.
If you see a risk that others take,
That puts their health or life at stake.
The question asked or thing you say
Could help them live another day.
If you see a risk and walk away,
Then hope you never have to say
I could have saved a life that day,
But I chose to look the other way.
Thank you for your time.
To read the official US Chemical Safety Board report on the Valero Refinery Propane Fire, click here.