The Pursuit of Safetyness

Chris Gardner, the subject of the new movie, The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith, is just as compelling in person as he is on the screen. Gardner was working with noted cardiac surgeon Dr. Robert Ellis as a medical assistant in the early 1980s; however, the pay simply wasn't enough to support his wife and newborn son. So Gardner set out to be a stockbroker.

The road was far from smooth. "I interviewed for a year for a training opportunity," Gardner related. Many obstacles stood in his way: a deteriorating marriage, and parking tickets that landed him in jail. In fact, he rescheduled one of his interviews from jail. He landed a job, but the low monthly stipend made it hard to make ends meet. He spent a full year without a home, sleeping in several spots including the washrooms on the Bay area subway line.

"I was homeless but not hopeless," Gardner stated. Through hard work, and the determination to be there for his son, Gardner eventually got an apartment in Oakland. He continued to work hard, becoming a multimillionaire while still giving his time and support to charitable causes including support for the homeless.

Another miraculous comeback - from workplace injury

Although not (yet) as well known, Spencer Beach is making an equally inspirational comeback from a workplace injury that almost killed him.

In April of 2003, Beach was removing linoleum flooring in a house using a flammable chemical to ease with the removal process. Suddenly he was engulfed in a flash fire burning at 1500 degrees, the temperature used to cremate bodies. He suffered third and fourth degree burns to 90 percent of his body.

"I was told I had a five percent chance to live," Beach related. "Letting go (dying) would have been easy." He did not choose this route, however. He told the doctor, "do what it takes, I don't want to die." His primary motivation, very similar to Gardner's, was to be there for his family. His wife was expecting their first child at the time of the accident.

His lowest point was also his highest: the birth of his daughter the following September. While he was overjoyed with the birth, he was unable to assist with the birth or even touch his newborn daughter. "I felt useless, hopeless on the happiest day of my life."

Beach spent six weeks in an induced coma, nine months in an isolation ward, and a further six months in rehab, whittling away to a mere 112 pounds (on a 6 foot 3 frame.) It took two long years for him to stand without pain. He has endured 29 surgeries to date, with another 15 yet to come. He will never be able to make a fist, or blink his left eye. He is able to share his story, and be an inspiration to others just as his family was for him.

Also today at the conference:

  • Bill Wilkerson received the IAPA-CME Health & Safety Leadership Award. Wilkerson was recognized for his efforts to put mental health on the agenda of corporate Canada.
  • Six Ontario businesses were recognized for their exemplary health and safety performance with the inaugural President's Award. The recipients were Canadian Blue Bird Coach Ltd., Casco Inc., Lyndon Security Services Inc., Plastiflex Canada Inc., Sulco Chemicals Limited and Steelcase Canada Ltd.
  • The IAPA announced the creation of a new award, the Ramsay Award, which will recognize journalists who raise the issue of workplace safety starting next year.

The IAPA Health and Safety Conference closes Wednesday afternoon.

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