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Big Dawg’s Last Bark…

It was 117 degrees in the shade, and I found myself in the Nevada desert “Badlands,” about an hour north of Vegas. I was asked to come and help Fluor Construction kick-off a new behavior based recognition process with the thousand plus union construction workers at the Moapa Co-Gen project.

I was rapidly trying to organize my thoughts, since I knew that in the next 4 hours we’d assemble more than 1000 workers inside a temporary warehouse to feed them lunch, hand them a special gift, and speak with them about how important safety was on this and every construction project.

It was then and there that Jerry “Big Dawg” Westbrook walked into my world. At first, I thought the local Hell’s Angel gang had taken a wrong turn and wound up on our jobsite.  But Jerry’s big hearty handshake told me in a moment all I needed to know about the Dawg.

He was a fun-loving straight shooter, passionate about other people and their safety.

With Jerry’s help we fed everyone barbecue, gave them their gifts, announced the new process, touched their hearts a bit, and got their buy-in for safety.

Over the next 3 years working with the Dawg, Rocky Smith, and Brian Spraker (Moapa Site Safety Leader), I grew to have a profound respect for this team….they ran an extremely safe project and the results spoke for themselves (I believe their project broke records for Nevada construction workplace safety)

Rocky Smith remembers the Dawg fondly at the Moapa site.

“I was coming in on the night shift and saw Jerry helping an employee who had a heart attack with the AED. Jerry asked me to help roll him over to get him ready for the helicopter ride to the hospital. As Jerry rolled our patient over to face me, the man got sick and threw up on my boots.  Jerry just laughed and said he’d seen it all coming and that’s why he’d picked me to help him. 🙂 …And I’ll never forget how our friend Keith found this bakery in Vegas with donuts the size of a dinner plate. He’d always show up with a dozen every week. Jerry would start out by saying, “I’ll only have one.” And by the second donut he would just grin at us and say “What? I only had two.”

Rocky concludes by saying…“Jerry was a special guy, with a heart of gold that touched all of us….”

One construction worker’s comment on the Moapa project said it all…. “Fluor is serious about safety. They brought a real behavior change process to this project. The other Vegas contractors just hand us a ball cap…”

Then, as it always happens in construction, I lost track of these good friends. The projects wound up, and everyone moved on. Brian went to Africa. Rocky went to Trinidad.

And the Dawg?

The Dawg dropped off my radar….until one day some years later….when his voice roared thru my cellphone…

“Hey Bill, it’s your old buddy the Dawg!”

“Jerry, how you been man???”

“Meaner than ever. Hey, I’m here working in Vegas on the City Center Project.  We need your system here. Can you come see us and see if we can sell MGM management on the idea?”

I was on the next plane to Vegas. When I arrived, Jerry introduced me to a wonderful lady named Lisa who was every bit as passionate about safety as the Dawg.

While the three of us fought tirelessly to get MGM leadership to implement a process like the one at Moapa, sadly, they were unwilling or unable to do so.

Thru each and every one of the twelve fatalities at the City Center project and other projects on the strip, the Dawg and Lisa redoubled their efforts to get a behavioral process approved.

The Dawg didn’t care who heard him or what he said. He would bark until leadership heard his message about safety.

His motto: To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.

Jerry wasn’t afraid of criticism and it’s pretty safe to say that doing, saying, or being nothing just wasn’t for him.

One day some months later, Jerry called me and told me he’d lost 32 pounds and stopped smoking. He had been diagnosed with cancer. I spent a long time chatting with him about life and what matters most.

Then, bouncing back like he always did, the Dawg was his old self. Fussing and ranting about people not taking safety seriously like they should.

I was glad to hear the Dawg bark again, cause I knew he must be feeling better…and sure enough, his doctors had told him he was in remission.

….

“Bill it’s Lisa and I’ve got some really bad news. Jerry’s cancer returned and he’s in a coma in the hospital. I’m heading down to check on him.”  A little voice in my head had wondered why the Dawg had been quiet lately. I had hoped he was just working hard, but my darkest fears were soon to be realized.

According to his family, Jerry’s last few days were spent in ICU where he barked out orders to “Put your fall protection on! Check the scaffolding!” along with many other safety reminders.

Before I could make it to Vegas the text came in from Lisa….“You know what they say Bill…all good Dawgs go to heaven.”

To me, Jerry Westbrook was a safety manager’s safety manager. About a month before he passed away,  I was able to interview the Dawg and recorded his story about the Moapa project with his permission….if you would like to hear the Dawg’s Last Bark, please visit the link below. I think it’s the way he would want to be remembered…

And the next time you have to stand up for safety and growl or even bark a little bit, just remember that the Dawg would be proud of you. 🙂

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