Shelby lost both hands just above the wrist in an electrical accident on Aug. 12, 1991, while working for Memphis Light, Gas & Water.
“I can’t feel your hand. I can remember what [a person’s handshake] feels like,” he said. “What I lost was my sense of feel, of touch. I will never be able to touch my daughter’s hand.”
But adversity, determination and goal setting made him a better person. And because of his accident, the culture of safety in the workplace changed because he went back to work and he was there every day as a constant reminder. He was, in a sense, a safety poster, but his message was not from a large printed picture with warnings on the wall his co-workers could ignore as they walked by. His accident also caused Memphis Light, Gas & Water to change its safety regulations.
Twenty-one years later, Shelby still evangelizes the gospel of workplace safety.
He spoke Tuesday afternoon to the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce Safety Council in the Museum Center at Five Points about his accident, the lack of personal safety and the struggles.
Shelby said there are so many things he gave up that day though he did not get up that Monday morning with the intention of “screwing my life up. I did not get up thinking, ‘If I really try, I can go out and do something really stupid. Nobody gets up with that mindset to go to work to mess up his life. They do it by being complacent or they decide to take a shortcut with safety procedures.”
The 28-year-old lineman took a risk and lost. He said he chose to take the risk and not wear his rubber gloves while completing the rather simple task of cutting a service wire. A service wire, he explained is the electrical line between a pole and a house.
“I was required to wear rubber gloves. I chose not to,” he said. “Our first job was just regular, random work. All I had to do was cut down a service line. It’s a very easy job that doesn’t require a lot of effort.”
He raised the bucket on his truck into position and put on a pair of leather gloves.
Facing the wires, the two hot lines were positioned below the neutral wire. He used a pair of common bolt cutters to snip the bottom line, then the middle one. But, the neutral wire was positioned in a manner that forced him to place the bolt cutters at a different angle.
“I opened the bolt cutters and when I did, the back of my right hand hit the primary conductor coming out of the bottom of the switch going to the transformer,” he said. “In Memphis, our voltage system is 23,000 volts and I was phased to ground on that which was about 12,500 volts.”
The bolt cutters were blown out of his hands and he never saw them again.
He remembered leaning backward over the side of the bucket looking up at puffy white clouds in a bright blue sky for what seemed like a long time, though in reality, it was only a matter of seconds.
He remembered thinking he was going to fall if he didn’t lean forward, which he did, and collapsed to the floor of the small, partitioned two-man bucket.
His partner lowered the boom, pulled him out of the bucket and helped him to the ground. He sat against the truck with his hands in his lap. He had no feeling in his hands and he could not move them. He thought maybe he’d broken both wrists.
“I wanted to take my gloves off but couldn’t,” he said.
One of Shelby’s co-workers, a paramedic, was in Shelby’s face, talking, making sure he stayed focused on things other than the hands he could not feel or move.
“I was sitting on the ground trying to figure out what happened to my hands,” he said.
Shelby wanted his gloves off. The paramedic resisted, but he finally relented under Shelby’s relentless verbal assault.
“He didn’t want to take off my gloves because he knew my skin was stuck to them,” he said.
The six-man crew was working in a remote part of the county about 25 minutes from the hospital by ambulance. The ambulance driver knew Shelby would regain feeling in his hands any moment. He requested a medical helicopter because by air, it was only seven minutes to the hospital.
“About three minutes into the helicopter ride, my hands started hurting like someone turned on a switch,” he said. “They couldn’t give me anything for the pain because it was only seven minutes.”
By the time the doctor met him in the hospital, Shelby knew he would probably lose his hands. Doctors performed six operations in five days trying to save them, “but they were dead.”
He stayed 23 days in the hospital and continued in therapy for seven months where he learned the simplest of tasks, such as tying his shoes and other activities he took for granted such as hunting and fishing.
“I had to relearn everything,” he said. “It was extremely hard. I could have went home and laid in bed, but every day I had to look myself in the mirror,” and work at his recovery, he said.