Don't Think It Can't Happen To You

I got up to work on Monday, April 26th 2004 and by lunchtime, the doctor told me I’d never walk again.
— Kevin Roberts

Imagine hearing those words. Imagine your whole world turned upside down in a second’s time. Kevin Roberts had been framing houses for 25-years before that fateful day in 2004. “Building houses is all I’ve ever known,” declares Roberts. “I loved it to death. They say that if you love what you do it doesn’t seem like work and that’s how framing houses was for me. And then, one day it’s all gone and your life is forever changed.”

Kevin had been a framing contractor for Contract Lumber since 2000 but he had learned the business from his contractor Grandfather at a young age. He eventually found himself working for a builder in Zanesville, Ohio, his home town, and after a couple of short stints working for other builders, he decided to venture out on his own in 1995 with his brother, Chris. They concentrated on framing scattered lot homes in mostly rural settings, with very little scrutiny from OSHA. “We didn’t have all the different safety rules back then, no harnesses, no MSDS, no formal safety program. We just went out and built houses, just like the carpenters had been doing for the 50-years before us. You just built a house and moved on to the next one. In 2000 when we began subbing for Contract Lumber and starting working in the suburban developments we were forced to ‘up our game’ regarding safety but it was still just the basic stuff, hardhats, safety glasses and such. We generally practiced being safe but there were no mandates about being tied off at the time. I probably cared more about my guys than myself. I mean I tried to be safe because I needed to work to take care of my family and keep the crew busy. Down time wasn’t an option I considered. I didn’t worry about me. I thought I was invincible. I never thought I’d get hurt, or at least, not hurt as badly as I did.” 

 Kevin Roberts was a framing contractor for Contract Lumber who suffered a debilitating injury on a jobsite in 2004. He has since joined the company in framing estimating and most recently as a safety coordinator.

Kevin Roberts was a framing contractor for Contract Lumber who suffered a debilitating injury on a jobsite in 2004. He has since joined the company in framing estimating and most recently as a safety coordinator.

“You really go through a lot of ‘what ifs’ when something like this happens to you. What if I hadn’t decided to work that Monday? What if the stair order hadn’t gotten screwed up and our stairs would have already been installed and I wouldn’t have been using a ladder? What if this – what if that? His crew was working in Hemstead Village that misty, raining morning in late April, just finishing the second floor deck and getting ready to stand second floor walls. “I was coming off the second floor down a step ladder, something I had done hundreds of times, and just lost my footing, slipped and fell to the floor below. I don’t really know exactly what happened. I mean I fell less than 8 feet. It was nothing I did that was dangerous or out-of-line. I just slipped off the step ladder and the next thing I know, my brother is standing over me asking if I was alright. I said yes, just give me a few minutes, I can’t feel my legs. So he keeps pinching me and I feel nothing so that’s when they called the squad. So that’s how quick it can happen. I go to work in the morning and by lunchtime the doctor told me I’d never walk again.”

Even though Kevin’s fall had been from a relatively low height, the doctors think that his body had somehow twisted at impact to create a spinal compression at the T-10/T-11 vertebras just under his ribcage. He is, what is referred to, as a complete paraplegic, paralyzed from the waist down with neither feeling nor movement below his waist. “The doctor said when he cut me open the spine popped right back where it was supposed to. Now I have two 12” rods, two cross braces and ten 2-1/2 screws in my back to stabilize the spine. Everything changed for me and my family that day. My feeling of invincibility was shattered in a matter of a few seconds.” The irony of Kevin’s situation is that even today’s more stringent safety standards may not have made a difference in his outcome. Sometimes, accidents just happen, especially in a high-risk occupation like construction, and all the safety regulations in the world can’t save someone from the horrific consequences of a slip here or a stumble there.                

Dealing with the aftermath of an accident of this magnitude is the quintessence of meeting a challenge. “Everyone says I have a good attitude about it,” reveals Kevin. “Believe me, there are days when it’s rough - when I realize I can’t do something that I used to be able to do. It hurts. Sometimes, you curse God and ask, what did I do so bad to deserve this? I get no answer. Ultimately, it’s family and friends that get you through. My wife has never blamed me. I get upset about it sometimes, but she never does. The biggest struggle is not being in this chair, but financial. It’s never ending! I spent $5,000 for a wheelchair, $35,000 for a specially equipped van. It was tough, and it is still difficult. I was fortunate that my wife’s insurance took care of a lot but we had to sell a bunch of stuff to get through it.”

Another issue Kevin has had to deal with is the lingering ongoing health problems consistent with an injury like his. “For instance, I have a pressure ulcer that has really given me problems the last few months. Someone asked me the other day if it was serious and I told them, serious enough to kill superman! Really, that’s what Christopher Reeve, who played superman, died from, a pressure ulcer. This past fall I spent a week in the hospital dealing with a bone infection. In fact, I’m still trying to clear that up. There is just so many complications from an injury like this that just would never enter your mind. Like I tell people, you have two choices. You can deal with it and move on, or you can give up. That’s the only two choices you have. I chose to deal with it and make the best life I possibly can. My family, especially my wife, daughter and brother, is the real reason I was able to get through it. If you don’t have that type of support, odds are against you making it.”

Shortly after his accident, Kevin came to work for Contract Framing as a labor estimator. Then in 2008 he became involved with helping put together a more formal safety program and in 2010, with the advent of the six-foot fall protection rule, became actively involved in training the many subcontract crews that frame, roof and trim for Contract Lumber. To say Kevin has a unique safety perspective is an understatement. “You may think that I’d have an ultra-strict safety perspective, given my history, but I feel that I have a much more realistic approach than many out there. Obviously, being safety compliant is an important component to reducing risks on the jobsite but I also understand from my years of framing houses that it is really slowing the work down to the point where guys just can’t make any money. There is this constant pressure to work safe but the production schedule pushes you to cut corners and take undue risks. At the end of the day these guys are just trying to make a dollar. They want to finish their house and get on to the next one. I think the number one reason for non-compliance of safety on jobsites today is the money. The system is set up that if they want to make money it’s all about productivity and being OSHA compliant slows them down. A contractor looks at the cost of safety equipment and then the fact that it will take 2-3 days longer to frame the house if they fully comply with all OSHA safety standards, and compare that to what the house pays, and it just seems like a no-win situation. I mean, if you have a six-man crew, your costs average $1,200 - $1,500 per day if you are paying your guys decent wages and have a forklift. Just do the math! I think it is a big contributor as to why there is a shortage of carpenter tradesmen today.”

Ultimately, Kevin’s message to everyone he confronts in all the safety training sessions and jobsite audits he performs, is very simple. “Safety is your own personal responsibility. If you take a shortcut, you are not shortcutting your company or the builder, or even OSHA for that matter. You are shortcutting yourself and your family because that’s who is going to pay the price. It’s going to be you who gets the injury and it will be you and your family who have to deal with it. The company, the builder – they’re going to go on and it will be you and your loved ones at home wondering what’s next.” 

Carrying that message to all who will listen has been Kevin’s passion the last few years. “I think the wheelchair certainly gets their attention but I think the biggest advantage I have is that I have done their job. I’ve been there and understand what they go through. I sympathize with the challenges they face to being safe and making a living. I just try to hammer home, don’t think it can’t happen to you! Look at me – look at my situation and I wasn’t even doing anything wrong. You can’t worry about the crew working next door to you not adhering to safety standards or the fact that nobody is looking over your shoulder forcing you to adhere. You need to make a conscience decision to do everything you can to work safe today, and every day, so that you go home to your family the same way you left them this morning. If you are out there blatantly taking risks, it may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, but eventually, it’s going to catch up to you and when it does, it will be you paying the price.”