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Editorial: Don’t ignore your gut

Take steps to ensure complacency doesn’t affect the safety of your operation


August 26, 2019
By Maria Church
Maria Church

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Spencer Beach was the keynote speaker at the Wood Products Safety Summit in Prince George, B.C. in June.

A gut feeling is hard to define and easy to ignore. I would describe it as the twinge in my stomach when I do something risky.

I most acutely felt it as I was donning a harness and bungee cord about to jump off a bridge 50 metres above a river in Whistler, B.C. A reasonable person might think twice about the experience. My 18-year-old self chose the thrill over reason.

In our day to day, the gut feeling is much less obvious, but no less present. For those in trades or operational roles, working with heavy machinery or dangerous substances, the gut feeling naturally dulls with experience. But it’s still there.

Spencer Beach, a former flooring installer from Edmonton, ignored his gut feeling once and has since committed his life to convincing others to listen to it.

Beach was the keynote speaker at the Wood Products Safety Summit (coverage here), put on by the Wood Pellet Association of Canada (WPAC) and Canadian Biomass in Prince George in June. I was in the audience this year and consider myself lucky to have heard Beach speak. You know a message is hitting home when a room of nearly 100 people is dead silent as a speaker tells a story.

In 2003, Beach was removing the flooring from an under-construction home with a flammable chemical when a flash fire engulfed the house. The chemical fire reached 1,500 degrees, burning 90 per cent of his body in third- and fourth-degree burns.

Miraculously, Beach survived the incident. Months of painful recovery gave him time to reflect on where things went wrong, and how he could have avoided it. A big step was admitting he knew the chemical he was working with was unsafe.

“How many of you have been in a situation where you have the gut feeling, and you do nothing at all?” Beach asked the audience. “But I did what all strong, hardworking people do – I took that feeling and I pushed it deep down to where it can’t be heard. And I did nothing. I chose to die.”

It’s a harsh, critical lesson for all machine operators in the biomass industry. No pellet plant, biogas facility or wood chipping operation is immune from the complacency that leads to unsafe practices.

The reality is our industry is in the business of combustible dust. And while industry practices and technology solutions for explosion prevention and protection have advanced, there is still plenty to learn, and re-learn, to prevent future incidents.

If you missed our Dust Safety Week 2019, which took place June 24-28, I encourage you to check out the articles and talk to managers, colleagues and employees about how your plant can step up its safety game. Don’t wait until an incident happens. Don’t ignore the gut feeling.

Beach is bringing his story and message to WPAC’s AGM, taking place Sept. 22-25 in Ottawa. Find details at www.pellet.org/wpac-agm.