From his wheelchair, man stresses safety to Marines
January 17, 2009
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — He’s not a servicemember. He’s not even a U.S. citizen.
Still, as Bernie Inman, a quadriplegic Canadian, slowly wheeled across the Camp Foster Theater stage and began his story, the gathered Marines were all ears.
Inman, 42, is here for about two weeks, talking to Marines during their annual Back in the Saddle training, held after the December holidays to refocus troops on workplace safety.
"We see an increase in the amount of preventable mishaps after the holiday season," Shawn Curtis, the occupational safety and health specialist for Camp Foster, told the crowd as he urged them to listen to Inman.
Inman admits he is not a safety expert, but his message is hard to ignore. A simple workplace stumble 15 years ago changed Inman’s life forever, and the ripple effect of that accident changed his family’s life too, he said.
At 27, Inman was a gas well operator in the petroleum industry in the province of Alberta. He had 10 years of experience in his field and was good at what he did, he told Marines.
But, in an 8-by-12-foot building, he "got caught taking a shortcut," he said.
"Look at this," he said and shrugged his arms up to display the clubbed, curled-under fingers of his hands.
"That’s what I got for taking a shortcut," he said from his wheelchair.
On that January afternoon, Inman had been working alone, checking on equipment dealing with natural gas. Entering the operator’s shack, he slipped or tripped and his foot kicked the bleed valve of a methanol pump.
He lay unconscious on the floor, soaking in a puddle of methanol and breathing in methanol fumes, for about 12 hours.
"No one knew I was there," he said.
It was only when his wife raised the alarm because he wasn’t home from work that anyone realized he was missing.
By the time Inman was found, he had second- and third-degree chemical burns over 70 percent of his body, and critical organ failure in most of the systems of his body, he said.
Doctors expected him to die, and he lay comatose for 20 days. When he woke, he was completely paralyzed, and it took years for his nerves to regenerate enough to allow him the simple motions left to him — control of his head and some shoulder and arm movement.
And doctors tell him he will never get better than he is now, he said.
Still, Inman is grateful for what he is able to do, as he should have died that day.
"You are looking at the only person rolling around the face of the Earth to survive this level of methanol exposure," he said.
The worst thing about the incident is knowing that a few simple precautions could have prevented it, he said.
He was too complacent about his work environment, he said. If he had worn the safety gear provided by his company, informed others where he would be, acknowledged the dangers inherent to working in his industry — any of these and he might not have suffered the damage he did, he said.
"I will never be able to shed the little cloud that follows me around … because I brought this on myself … and the ripple effect on my family," Inman said as he wiped moisture from his eyes with the back of a wrist by holding one arm up to his face with the other.
Inman then told the Marines, "It can happen to you. It can happen to anybody in this room" if they become complacent about their own safety.
Inman’s message hit home with Cpl. James Park, 25, a quality control mechanic with Combat Logistics Battalion 4.
Listening to Inman’s story "was hard, I almost teared up," Park said. You can’t ignore Inman’s "life experience. You can’t deny it," he said.
Lance Cpl. Joshua Lynch, 20, a driver with Combat Logistics Battalion 4, agreed.
"Hearing somebody who actually has experience of the importance of safety … it reminded me that it can happen to me," Lynch said.