It is near impossible to find a better representative speaking for the underground construction industry than Cliff Meidl, a kayaker whose heroic triumph over adversity brought him such acclaim that he was nominated to lead Team USA at the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
Meidl is a man literally on his third or fourth life. Once you read his remarkable story, decide for yourself what still keeps this 50-year-old Californian ticking. We return to 1986 when Meidl suffered near-fatal injuries in a trenching accident.
P&GJ: Cliff, how were you hurt?
Meidl: I was operating a jackhammer when I struck three buried power lines with 4,160 volts and received a severe electrical shock. Initially, my heart stopped due to the large amount of electricity. Fortunately, fast-acting first responders were able to bring me back to life. I suffered electrical burns and exit wounds over 15% of my body. I had approximately one-third of each knee joint disintegrated by the burns. The biggest threat was amputation of both legs. Doctors were able to perform a state-of-the-art procedure at that time, grafting muscles to the burned knee areas, saving both legs.
P&GJ: Did you consider your remarkable recovery as a second chance at life, and to what goal did you dedicate yourself?
Meidl: Yes. My initial goal was the dream of running again which never happened. That desire created opportunities by getting involved in canoe paddling which was a life-changing experience, launching me back into a culture of learning and mentoring which I lost after my accident. I was very fortunate for all the family and friend support. This propelled me with the thirst of wanting to be the best I could be.
I was introduced to Olympic sprint kayaking and after years of dedication and struggle, I made two Olympic teams, competing in the 1996 Centennial Games in Atlanta and 2000 in Sydney. No medals but the incredible honor was being selected by my fellow Olympian teammates to be their flag bearer at Sydney. When I was very young, I would dream while running to my physical education class of competing in a large arena. I always believed it related to an important soccer game that I would play. To represent our USA Olympic team in front of 120,000 attendees and perhaps 2 billion viewers worldwide was more than I could ever imagine.
P&GJ: Where did you find the physical and emotional strength to recover to the point where you qualified as an Olympic athlete?
Meidl: Much of the physical strength that I gained to be able to compete in kayaking developed from my extensive rehabilitation work which involved canoe paddling, weightlifting, and aerobics. I learned my work ethic from my parents and to never give up under any circumstance. There were many ups and downs in the process but I kept believing in myself and never gave up on my Olympic dream.
The emotional part was derived from just fighting to get back to normal after my accident. That helped create the determination and will to get to the top. I wanted to get my life back completely and competition was the means to do this. When I attended the Closing Games ceremonies in Atlanta and when the logo flashed on the big screen for the next Summer Olympics in Sydney, I knew I had to continue this personal emotional quest.
P&GJ: Why and how did you get involved in speaking on behalf of the utility industry and Common Ground Alliance?
Meidl: I initially got into speaking because I wanted to make an impact on the worker and prevent them from getting injured or dying on the worksite from an accident. After retiring from the Olympics in 2000 the most important thing was to utilize whatever visibility I now had from my story to try to make worksites safer.
I became a national media spokesperson for the construction industry and later as a national spokesperson for the electrical industry. During my role with the electrical industry, I began speaking at utility and gas companies. However, as soon as I learned of the national initiative that was moving forward with the Call 811 Before You Dig movement, I became very excited.
One of my first damage prevention industry presentations was on behalf of the Georgia 811 organization where I met Executive Director Claudette Campbell and Meghan Wade. One individual very helpful in introducing me was Don Heyer from USA North, one of the pioneers of Call 811.
After this presentation, one thing led to another. I taped a PSA safety video for Georgia 811 and began making more damage prevention summit appearances in the industry. Next, I was honored to become the national spokesperson for the One Calls of America. In the course of all of my Call 811 activities, I attended the Common Ground Alliance national conference. Recently, we were able to finalize my spokesperson role with the national 2016 CGA Excavation & Safety Exposition. It is an honor for me to represent CGA.
P&GJ: These discussions are a passion for you?
Meidl: Absolutely. Every time I speak I think of it as competition. I’m out here to provide my best performance all the time. Speaking is emotional; my mission is to inspire others to be their best and work safe. I’ve always had a passion to work hard and enjoy what I’m doing. I enjoy sharing my story and inspiring audiences.
P&GJ: Do you get the opportunity to visit construction jobsites to see for yourself what goes on?
Meidl: Through my experiences in construction safety and damage prevention I have the opportunity to see what goes on in the field. On several occasions, I’ve been able to identify a potential safety hazard which I was able to “engineer out” and eliminate. In extreme situations, I implemented “stop work authority” on a project when I witnessed, in my opinion, an unsafe work practice during the undergrounding and installation of a fiber-optic cable line that was crossing an electrical facility. Growing up my occupation dream was to become a building contractor. So I immediately became a plumber’s apprentice and worked on plenty of jobsites before I had my accident.
P&GJ: What are some of the most common/serious mistakes that those involved in construction are prone to make?
Meidl: Taking shortcuts and not following best practices. For example, in the damage-prevention industry (“Call 811 before you dig”) many people (contractors and/or homeowners) attempt to perform a quick excavation, (whether time-related or they just don’t know the law) without taking the required protocol, which is Calling 811 before digging. On a national average, when a contractor or homeowner does not call 811 before digging, 34% of the time damage is created to underground infrastructure such as digging into buried gas, electrical, water facilities etc. BUT, when 811 is called, those statistics fall below 1%.
P&GJ: Where does safety have to start, and how is it best taught to employees? Does management do enough to properly train workers?
Meidl: Safety starts with personal accountability. You always have to be observant and need to understand your surroundings. I believe in taking the 30,000-foot approach: anticipate, recognize, evaluate, and control. It’s critical as employees to personally comprehend everything in your surrounding work area and not leave it up to others to provide that knowledge for you. Accountability is realizing your personal value and protecting yourself 24/7 from any possible harm. Your family expects you to return from work the same as when you left.
Teaching safety is best accomplished through a combination of education, training and mentorship. Being taught and trained with best practices is obviously a critically large part of safety and saving lives. But, the balance of the teaching can come from the mentoring of a seasoned craftsman who has years of experience and wants to pass it on to a more junior worker. Being a worksite mentor enables that craftsman to pass down knowledge and experience which can inspire others. He or she can be the foundation of a safe work unit.
Management has come a long way in providing employees with a work-safe environment. But we can always do better and inspire every worker to be accident-free. This requires great commitment to both the processes of safety and the employees. Management has the ability to use a unique tool and to inspire employees to be their best.
P&GJ: What is the most important message you try to share with your audiences?
Meidl: Be a sponge. Learn as much as you can, be aware of your immediate surroundings, be personally accountable and always think safety. Use your strengths to find opportunities to grow and learn as much as you can through mentorship and education. We all will face our own adversity in life so accept that life is a journey that will bring challenges. However, whatever difficulties we may have in our personal lives, we can’t allow ourselves to bring those problems onto the worksite. We need to stay focused because other workers depend on us to be the best that we can be every day.
Meidl: The industry faces amazing challenges. Utilities deal with everything that we can imagine and others that we can’t. In general, I have lots of admiration for the utility industry. It’s on the frontline and the many executives and employees whom I’ve gotten to know appear to be “the best of the best.”
They are up to speed on everything and adept at working in a fishbowl because there is public scrutiny over everything they do. Utilities are among the greatest supporters of “best practices and safe work practices” because with all that they face, they don’t have the tolerance for the potential fallout that comes with unsafe worker conditions.
P&GJ: What are some of their most frequent questions?
Meidl: They want to know everything that happened to me, my family, my co-workers, the safety management leaders and the company as a result of my accident. I often address what happens to the overall safety culture of a company when a bad accident occurs.
P&GJ: Do you have a favorite motto?
Meidl: Winners never quit, quitters never win. There’s no such thing as an overachiever, just an under-estimator.
P&GJ: What types of utilities do it the right way?
Meidl: To me, they are the ones that provide opportunities for on-the-job mentoring and truly value their employees’ lives. They follow best practices and have zero tolerance for accidents. Their safety records are constantly improving and they are partnered with safety governing bodies. They are always looking for the next practice that can save a life or prevent a serious job site injury.
P&GJ: As one who cares about the construction business, what do you consider as your greatest achievement?
Meidl: My goal when I speak to audiences is to be able to inspire each attendee to not only work safely, but individually to become the best person that each of them can be no matter what adversity he or she faces in life. I believe in touching one person at a time. If I can just inspire one person to make a difference, either in his or her life or the life of someone else, that is a great achievement for me.
It’s taken many years to develop myself and acquire recognition as a speaker in this industry. As I said, my occupational dream as a student was to become a builder. My first national spokesperson role following Sydney was focused in the construction safety arena. To be able to turn the visibility as a result of my story being told on television, in newspapers and magazines has enabled me to reach others with my mission of saving lives and preventing injuries and damages to facilities. It does not get any better than this for me!
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Written by Jeff Share, Editor