© Jaromír Chalabala | Dreamstime.com

Like a lot of the simple things we take for granted in life, it takes a wake-up call periodically to make us reflect on and appreciate the things we value. Sometimes, we don’t realize how dangerous the everyday tasks we do can be. After all, we worked hard to get where we are and after 20-plus years in the industry, we somehow believe we’ve seen it all. How easy is it for us to develop the mindset that nothing traumatic or terrible could happen in our backyard under our watch?

Nov. 7, 2011 started like any other fall day in the Western North Carolina mountains, specifically Highlands, N.C. Highlands Country Club is a rare success story, a 1928 Donald Ross design that was founded by the father/son team of Bob Jones Sr and the great Robert T. Jones Jr. The greatest amateur golfer of all time used the course extensively to prepare for the year that would make history in 1930, when he successfully completed the grand slam. That rich history has continued into the present day, where a caring and dedicated membership – a “who’s who” in the Southeast – spend six to eight months of their year, just a short drive from Atlanta, Birmingham and numerous Florida cities, among others. Here, you can enjoy a cool-season climate in the southern Appalachian Mountains, where the average high temperatures rarely top 82 degrees. The affluent membership is quick to check egos at the gate and enjoy the camaraderie of friends and family. Having been employed by seven different facilities, I’ve never seen anything like HCC, a special place I’ve called home for over 16 years.

After leaf season ends, many members (only six live locally year-round) return home to their primary residence and start counting the days until the return to their Highlands home. This enables us to work on agronomic programs, capital improvements and other tasks like tree removal. We squeeze as much as we can into that four-month window we are closed. Winter can be just as stressful or more than summer. At 4,000 feet elevation, winter can hit hard, much like the Northeast.

How could this have happened? I hold safety meetings regularly, every other week. We spend rainy days training staff on equipment safety.”

In 2011, as the staff embarked on an aggressive list of projects, the equipment management staff started on their normal winter tasks of rebuilding reels, replacing bearings and general maintenance. Our aging skid loader was giving us constant issues. We constantly went back and forth with the manufacturer and the problem was difficult to troubleshoot. Initially an electrical harness issue, it turned into much more. That November morning, I was helping staff build a new tee on the 10th hole located about 150 yards from the maintenance facility. The weather was perfect, a November day with highs near 60 degrees. Just before lunch, I heard the clubhouse manager yelling for help in the distance. I dropped my shovel and started to run toward the shop. Whatever happened at this point, I knew it was bad. I got to the front of the shop and there was my equipment manager, who also happens to be one of my closest friends, lifeless, pinched between the boom and the cab of the skid loader. His body turned more blue with every passing second. We called 911 and help was minutes away.

Another staff member had the idea to get the skid loader we had borrowed from a local landscaper while our unit was down. Using that equipment, we broke free the boom, at which point my mechanic fell backwards to me, where I caught him and laid him on the cold concrete. At this point, EMS pulled up, jumping out of the ambulance and managed the situation, first by giving him oxygen. It wasn’t looking good at first; his body remained lifeless and dark blue. I heard him make a noise a few times and hope was somewhat restored. EMS called Mountain Area Medical Airlift, and within 10 minutes a helicopter was going to be landing on the practice facility tee. He was headed to Asheville’s Mission Hospital Trauma Center, a great facility 60 miles from Highlands. At this point, there was nothing I could do; I wasn’t used to not having control like this. I made the hardest call of my life, calling his wife to tell her what happened. By now, the helicopter was long gone and his wife now faced the 90-minute drive to the hospital.

The staff was incredibly shaken, but there was nothing we could do. After talking to the staff and letting it all out, we decided it was best to get back to work. We had hope because the helicopter EMS staff is known to only transport patients when they were stabilized. That’s what we wanted to believe, anyway. An hour later, I drove to Asheville to see how he was doing. Fortunately, our loyal co-worker and equipment tech made a good recovery and was back to work in a month. To this day, he still has lingering issues due to that accident. I thank God every day that I still have my friend. He is the best equipment tech I know and has been a sounding board for me whether it be agronomic ideas or just personal thoughts.

Highlands Country Club is a Donald Ross-designed course in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Superintendent Brian Stiehler makes creative safety training a part of his crew’s routine.
© brian stiehler

But as days and weeks passed, I continued to think about that day. How could this have happened? I hold safety meetings regularly, every other week. We spend rainy days training staff on equipment safety. How could I have failed so badly, was all I could think. It was an awful feeling. There ultimately was one thing that would have prevented this. The manual safety bars that support the boom in the lifted position were not engaged. The assistant mechanic at the time, failed to engage them and when my equipment tech went to work on the unit, he assumed they were engaged and didn’t check. He should have. Also, that day, the equipment management staff took staggered lunch times. If both were there at the same time, this maybe could have been prevented. When he was caught in the skid steer, he was the only one there. The clubhouse manager just happened to walk by, checking on the employee housing dormitories located across from our facility. If not for her, the outcome would have been much different. For the next year, the constant thoughts of “what if” scenarios made me sick. It took a long time to accept things and be grateful it turned out as positive as it did.

There isn’t anything we do that is so important that it isn’t worth doing safely.”

I wrote this story hoping no one experiences something like this – or worse. But here are the takeaways:

  • Make sure the staff understands mind setting and what impact your attitude will have each day.
  • Set clear policies on how and when equipment is serviced.
  • Let staff take ownership in safety meetings by letting them tell the story and how accidents can be avoided.
  • Invite your local EMS to visit, tour and see your property. Will they know exactly where to go in the event of an emergency? Furthermore, does 100 percent of your staff know the physical address of the buildings on your campus? Will 911 dispatchers be able to get EMS where they need to be, or will time be lost?
  • Invite you worker comp insurance representatives to come to the facility. I’ve done it numerous times and these are folks who want to do that stuff. We looked at nuances I never imagined. We inspected door thresholds, ladders, steps, fire-rated doors, grinders and storage issues. It was an eye-opening experience that no one could possibly understand without that training. Be proactive because your staff is worth it!

In the end, I’ve learned it is my job to educate the staff in creative ways to recognize the dangers of the job. Most of these dangers are easily avoidable. The challenge is getting the staff to remain vigilant and take ownership of their own health and safety. I tell them that they need to make safety their No. 1 priority because others are counting on them. Let’s face it, our team is like family. We spend more time together than we do with our families at many times of the year. There isn’t anything we do that is so important that it isn’t worth doing safely.

Brian Stiehler, CGCS, is the superintendent at Highlands Country Club in Highlands, N.C.