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Decade after near-death incident, Marion electrician travels country to warn others

NECA-IBEW electrical workers in Wisconsin listen in 2019 to Marion resident Brandon Schroeder speaking about workplace s
NECA-IBEW electrical workers in Wisconsin listen in 2019 to Marion resident Brandon Schroeder speaking about workplace safety. (Photo courtesy of Brandon Schroeder)
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Brandon Schroeder’s momentary decision not to put on safety gear nearly 10 years ago ended up shaping his life’s trajectory.

The Marion electrician on Aug. 24, 2011, was relocating a temporary power feed running electricity to a construction site — a routine job co-workers often performed without wearing protective arc flash suits — but without shutting off the power.

Schroeder ultimately was hit by an explosive arc flash, blasting molten metal and copper from the electrical panel at up to 35,000 degrees at 700 mph.

“I looked up at the sky and there’s this big black mushroom cloud of smoke, the grass around me caught on fire. It shook a building a block away,” said Schroeder earlier this month. “It blew my entire palm off my hand. It was just hanging there. I remember screaming as loud as I could. I was terrified. Nothing hurt yet, but I knew that the pain was coming.”

The incident put Schroeder in the hospital for a month, where he underwent surgery and the staff de-gloved his hand. He later underwent months of emotionally grueling recovery at home.

“Every person that cared about me had to come in there and see the results of my decision,” said Schroeder,

Schroeder first shared his experience publicly in 2012, when he was asked to speak at a Master Builders of Iowa conference. He at first was unsure about the idea, but over time began delivering more presentations at employers around Eastern Iowa.

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In 2017, Schroeder made a YouTube video that racked up thousands of views and connected him with larger safety companies, like DiVal Safety Equipment in Buffalo, N.Y.

Schroeder now has given hundreds of presentations nationwide through his company Believe in Safety, beseeching employees at companies both large and small — including Google, Intel, General Mills and then-Rockwell Collins — to avoid cutting corners and instead model safe workplace behavior.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

Q: What was your experience returning to work as an electrician after your accident?

A: When I first went back to work, I was worried how my co-workers were going to perceive me. Anytime you make a mistake at work, especially a big one, the last thing you want is for everyone in the world to know about it, and everyone in the world knew what I did that day. This was 100 percent my fault but it was hard to go back to work, wondering, “Does everyone look at me like you’re the guy that messed up, you’re no good at your job?” It really hurt my confidence ... my confidence was gone. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do the work anymore.

Q: What prompted you to begin speaking about your accident through the lens of workplace safety, and when?

A: I started speaking in 2012, shortly after my accident. We got an OSHA citation and a guy in the room was from MBI (Master Builders of Iowa), he was like our safety advocate, he was going to help talk down the OSHA inspector. He asked if I was willing to present and talk about my accident at the MBI safety conference. I’m thinking, “Present what? I did something stupid, I blew myself up, I don’t know what you want me to say.” I was terrified, but I reluctantly agreed. ... I went home and I Googled the conference, and I saw there were going to be 500 people in attendance. Ten people signed up for my breakout session, and I was like, “I got this.” That’s how this whole thing got started. I probably did 10 to 12 speaking events a year starting in 2012 up until 2017. That’s when I really took this thing and decided to go nationwide. I made my YouTube video in 2017. I put that out and thought, we’ll see what the response is. ... There are now 21,000 views. For a safety video, that’s pretty good. I’m thinking, “Why do these people want to hear my story?” But they do.

Q: Where have you presented on workplace safety so far?

A: I’ve been to a Google data center in Oregon. I had my biggest name ready to sign before the (coronavirus) hit — Nike wants me to do two presentations at one of their plants. I’ve gotten to do three of Intel’s plants in New Mexico and Phoenix ... the list goes on. It just astonishes me, a lot of these people don’t work with electrical and that’s what I wanted to emphasize during my presentation. When I’m talking to electrical workers, I focus on electricity. When I’m talking to factory workers or office workers, I’m talking about everyday decisions that affect your life. I’m able to tweak (my presentation) to pretty much everyone ... the core meat and potatoes of my story pretty much stays the same.

Q: What has been the most meaningful response you’ve received to your presentations?

A: I had a guy in Philadelphia, a construction worker, he had his hard hat on and looked like a rough, tough guy. He came up to me with tears in his eyes and said, “Yesterday, I was just like you, ‘hurry up and get it done.’” Productivity is what drives us in the construction industry. He came up to me and said, “I did the same type of stuff you did for my entire career. When you showed that picture of your family and your daughter out there, and what that (accident) did for them, tomorrow I’m doing things differently. I can always get another job but I can’t get another life.” I would say that was one of the most impactful ones ... That guy coming up to me and just seeing the emotion on his face and just telling me he’s doing things different tomorrow, that’s not easy to do. I only have an hour with the crowd. I used to think, “How can I change people in an hour,” but knowing you can make people see what happened to you and want to change ... it’s not something anyone can do. I’m fortunate. I feel like it was my calling to do this.

Q: What do you do when you’re not presenting?

A: Any days I’m not speaking, I still work with (Davenport-based) Tri-City Electric around Iowa City as an electrician when I can. My speaking was doing well enough that, before the coronavirus, I could just do speaking. ... But I like to go out there and do the electrical work because it helps me understand the same decisions workers are facing on a daily basis. I get to talk the talk and then walk the walk. I get to talk about safety but then I also go out there and I work in the field, alongside other electricians and tradespeople doing the same type of work I got injured at. I make safety a priority, and if I see something, I say something.

Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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