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Be thankful for what you have

Redvers – A methanol spill in a small enclosed space nearly took Bernie Inman’s life in 1994. Now he and his wife Sheila are spreading their safety message throughout the industry.
Bernie Inman
Bernie Inman, seated, was dramatically impacted by methanol exposure at a well site. Now he and his wife Sheila spread a safety message.

Redvers– A methanol spill in a small enclosed space nearly took Bernie Inman’s life in 1994. Now he and his wife Sheila are spreading their safety message throughout the industry.

The pair were the speakers at the Redvers Oil and District Showcase banquet on May 12.

“I’m a production operator, outdoorsman and farmer,” Bernie said from his electric wheelchair.

He has no recollection of what happened that fateful day on Jan. 24, 1994, but through investigations and what others have told him, he’s pieced much of it together. For eight years, he tried to forget about the life-changing incident, but he was encouraged to do a presentation about it, and has continued to do so.

Bernie, at age 27, was working at a wellsite in northeast British Columbia. He was newly married, and Sheila was six months pregnant.

Bernie pointed out that people become complacent and comfortable in their work. “I don’t know why people choose to take the chance,” he said.

He had always been encouraged to report near misses, he said.

“Something that can seem so trivial can have huge implications,” Bernie said, pointing out he is now a quadriplegic. “The ripple effect of something like this reaches out, big time.”

He got into the oilfield at 17 and worked primarily in commissioning gas plants.

On the day of the incident, it was bitterly cold. The vent on the small shack was clogged with snow. Somehow, when he was in the shack, his left foot opened a bleed valve which caused the pump to discharge methanol on his foot an clothes. A plug also ended up missing from a ball valve.

Embarrassingly, of the numerous complex facilities he’s worked in, one of the most simply equipped “took him out.”

Disregarding a hard hat and ear protection, he wore a ball cap and normal eye glasses.

Back then, his company did not have a work-alone procedure ensuring regular check-ins. He had a new-fangled suitcase cellular phone. However, he didn’t answer at 9 p.m., long after he was expected home. His counterpart operator was called at 12:30 a.m., and he found Bernie at 3 a.m.

Bernie’s truck was running, headlights off (indicating he arrived during the day, in a time before daytime running lights). The truck door was open. He either tripped or slipped while entering the building, or perhaps the plug could have hit him in the forehead and knocked him out. No matter how it happened, Bernie was lying in a pool of methanol for roughly 11-12 hours, having been overcome by methanol fumes.

“Nobody’s ever survived this level of exposure to methanol before,” he said.

Saturated and soaked in bone-chilling methyl alcohol, he sustained chemical burns to large portions of his body and overwhelming toxicity. He was “the sickest individual in Vancouver General Hospital.”

“It went through my skin, my lungs, mucous membranes,” he said. The second and third degree burns spread from 45 to 70 per cent of his body. His kidneys shut down, his liver was essentially pickled, and the lining was burnt out of his lungs. His brain was covered in lesions.

Bernie was comatose for an extended period. After a month, they began unplugging him from life support, not expecting him to live, but he started to rouse a few days later.

“They were happy to have me. I put them through hell. I’m lucky to be me, in the situation I’m in, a husband and father.”

Despite subsequent brain damage, his body has slowly mended parts of his self. Bernie’s kidneys, liver and lungs have recovered. They have three active kids.

Things most people take for granted are now important, like the ability to feed himself again. He’s been able to put on 660,000 safe-driving kilometres.

Sheila said, “What was important became very clear. The most important thing I learned is that everyone is this room is a VIP and I guarantee someone is waiting for you to come home.

“In a second, your life can change. Be thankful for what you have,” she said.

They concluded by saying “Please take CARE – Communicate, Attitude, Responsibility and Educate.”