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Dawn Chisholm has been promoting workplace safety ever since her first husband, Bill Lambert, died while working in a grain silo in February 2002. Images: Courtesy of Dawn Chisholm

Minnesota woman highlights personal tragedy to bring safety awareness to the workplace

HAWLEY, Minn. – When Bill Lambert stepped into a corn silo on the cold afternoon of Feb.7, 2002, in Leonard, N.D., he had no idea he would never in this life see his family again. 

He went into the silo to do a routine job. Unexpectedly it became the perfect storm and, ignoring safety protocol, it cost him his life.

The outer edges of the top layer of corn had crusted with ice. Bill stepped onto it so he could push the corn toward the silo’s auger, but he never fastened a safety harness before doing so; there also was no one else inside the silo to spot the auger for him. 

“It was a routine job, something that needed to be done and something he had probably done a thousand times before,” said his widow, Dawn.

But on this winter day, the unthinkable happened: Bill fell through the crusted layer, got his leg caught in the auger, and was pulled down into the corn.

At the age of 40, Bill died alone that morning, suffocating about six feet from the ground in 10,000 bushels of corn. 

Alone except for God, whom Dawn believes was with him when darkness closed in and oxygen trickled out, comforting him and allowing his passing before he suffered too long. 

It’s a comfort she has carried for 18 years – but it hasn’t replaced the void that his death has caused her and their three children. Bill wasn’t there to attend their son’s graduation or walk their eldest daughter down the aisle when she got married. He didn’t see his youngest child’s first birthday.

Dawn knows she’ll see Bill again, but for now she travels the region sharing his story in the hope that other families won’t have to go through what hers has experienced: the life-long separation of a loved one who died because safety measures weren’t a priority. 

***

Not long after Bill’s death, Dawn decided she needed to make his story known in the hopes that others would learn from his mistakes. She did this whenever she could while working as an interior designer for a Fargo-based company, a place she had worked for about 20 years. 

That changed in 2017 when the North Dakota Safety Council contacted her about speaking at its annual conference that February. When she sat down to work on her presentation, she said she felt heaven’s guiding hand. 

Bill Lambert is pictured with his children at Christmastime in 2002, just a few weeks before his passing.

“I basically sat down at my computer and, I tell you, God took over and wrote what I was supposed to say,” she said. When she addressed about 80 people in a breakout session at the conference, she said she shared what happened on the day of Bill’s death. It’s been a template for her presentations ever since. She explained to Prairie Business that she does not tell employees what company rules or regulations they should follow. That’s up to the individual supervisors at companies; she’s there instead as an emotional consultant, sharing a story that hopefully will impact people as they hear it. 

“We need to keep in mind that the choices we make on a daily basis affect not only ourselves but the people around us,” she said, including “our families, our friends and communities, our workplace. If you make choices that could potentially affect yourself or others around you, well, I’m just trying to make people aware of it.” 

The same year the Safety Council contacted her, Dawn decided it was time to give up her job as an interior designer and devote more time to speaking and sharing Bill’s story. 

Through her efforts with a project she calls “If Only,” she urges farmers, business professionals and employees – everybody – to put safety first in their daily actions and routines. 

Dawn, who has since remarried and now lives in Hawley, Minn., has another reason to be passionate about safety in the workplace: her husband now, Randal Chisholm, also is a farmer who lost a family member much the same way she did. In early December, a cousin of Randal’s suffered the same fate as Bill after falling into and suffocating in a grain silo. 

“It is a common thing that seems to happen in this region,” Dawn said. “The Red River Valley has a lot of farmers. They don’t have a lot of hired hands and not always the right safety equipment. People don’t realize – they don’t believe – that something like this can happen to them.”

Just like what Bill believed. And Dawn. 

But now she knows differently. 

She especially worries with such wet harvests, such as this year created, that these same types of tragedies could befall others if they do not take a few extra seconds – sometimes that’s all it takes – to make sure they are safe. 

For instance, Dawn often demonstrates to audiences how long it takes to put on a safety harness. She clocked it time and again at just around 40 seconds. It’s 40 seconds that could potentially save a life. 

***

Dawn’s website describes her mission: “If Only seeks to have employees speak up when they face unsafe situations and for employers to embrace and encourage open dialogue, training and action to put safety measures in place.”

Besides sharing Bill’s story and the importance of workplace safety, she also addresses topics that help people consider how they can be more safe at home, at school or when behind the wheel. So far, Dawn has been invited to speak at companies, conferences and church groups, among others. 

“If Only really is about the choices we make on a daily basis,” she told Prairie Business. “I just want people to understand what that means, to slow down and think about safety, whether it’s with their occupation, at home or on the roads.”

Dawn said faith is an integral part of her efforts and feels impressed that her project is a calling from above, believing she has felt both heaven’s influence and that of her late husband’s in her work. She said she has never been angry with God or Bill for what happened 18 years ago. She knows why Bill did what he did on that tragic day; he wanted to hurry and get the job done so he could get home to his family. Instead of taking a few extra minutes to make sure he was safe, however, a bad decision cost him his life. 

Bill's children visit his grave years later in Casselton, N.D.

Dawn doesn’t talk about religion when she gets in front of audiences unless it’s a church group, but said her primary responsibility and goal is to bring home the message that safety, no matter the time or place, should be paramount. A look at some numbers show why:

In 2018, the latest numbers that have been released, 35 people lost their lives while on the job in North Dakota, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a slight decline from the previous year, which saw 38 workplace deaths in the state. 

In neighboring South Dakota, 32 died in work-related deaths in 2018, which was two more than 2017’s number.

In Prairie Business’s three-state coverage area, Minnesota had the highest number of work-related deaths in 2018. That number was 75, down from 101 in 2017.

There are separate numbers for work-related injuries, and Minnesota saw a significant decrease (61%) in this category over the past two decades. 

The problem is that even one workplace injury or death is too many. 

"Every worker in Minnesota has the right to be safe and healthy at work and the right to finish their workday in the same condition in which they started it,” Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink said in a statement. 

In all, 5,250 workers died on the job last year across the U.S.

While the numbers give the statistical angle of the problem, the real impact is when a loved one doesn’t come home at night. Dawn said there is nothing on the job more important than making sure all employees are safe.

“Your family wants you to come home at the end of the day,” she said.  

 

Prairie Business Editor Andrew Weeks may be reached at aweeks@prairiebusinessmagazine.com or 701-780-1276 | @PB_AndrewWeeks