On the evening of May 21st, 2018, Grade Foreman Mike Lyle stood next to a police patrol car on a northbound exit ramp on I-85. The exit was closed to motorists, blocked off at the bottom and top with reflective traffic barrels. As Lyle spoke through the driver’s side window with the officer, blue lights flashed on their darkened surroundings. It was close to midnight, the final half-hour of what had been another routine shift at work.
Then, in the middle of their conversation, a vehicle entered the blocked-off exit ramp at high speed. Turning his head to watch, Lyle started to ask, “What’s that guy—” But before he could finish the sentence, the vehicle collided into the back of the patrol car. The impact struck Lyle, throwing him more than 20 feet into the main traffic lane of I-85.
Suffering numerous bone fractures and massive trauma to his head, Lyle was air-lifted to Charlotte emergency facilities where he spent four days in a coma, followed by two weeks under hospital care. In total, Lyle suffered a fractured tibia below the knee, broken bones in his thumb, wrist, arm, and shoulder on his right side, fractures to his skull in two places, and countless bruises and scrapes. In addition, the impact of his forehead on the pavement severed nerves resulting in hearing loss, and impacting his senses of taste and smell.
Today, almost a full year after the work zone accident that nearly cost him his life, Lyle has returned to work on the same I-85 project where it took place. Asked about the incident and how it effected his outlook on life, work, and safety on the job, he had the following to say:
How is your recovery coming?
I’m doing good, you know. I’m here working again. My body’s healing. Still working on getting my shoulder back to 100 percent, but it’s getting there. I’ve got my last two sessions of physical therapy coming up next week. The hardest part, honestly, is my taste and smell not being right. The damage to my nerves made most food taste so I can’t stomach it. I’m living on eggs and protein shakes. But I’m alive.
Had you ever been injured on the job prior to your accident last year?
I’ve worked 20 years in the construction industry, the last five of them at Blythe. All that time I was on heavy construction and road work, and I never had any sort of accident. I tore my thumb pretty bad once. Nothing anywhere close to this. Nothing life-threatening.
How did you think about risk and safety before the accident?
[Laughs] Before the accident, I don’t know…I looked at things differently. I would have performed a lane closure by myself if I had to. Part of it was experience, being accustomed to the environment. I felt confident because I had been around it so long. Working near traffic was second nature. I just thought nothing of it. Now, I mean, that accident completely changed my life.
How has it influenced the way you work now?
I hear brakes screeching somewhere, I about jump out of my skin. Everyday I’m here I see the spot it happened. It is what it is.
Part of what shocked me, was that I did everything by the book that evening: I had the ramp closed off completely, I was wearing all my PPE—even had my halo turned on my hard hat—and I’d called the police in for extra visibility. Even with all that, an accident happened that almost cost my life.
Did you ever consider not coming back to work?
The accident was something that happened. It wasn’t good. But I’m 50 years old now, I’ve done this work most of my life. The whole time that I was home recovering, I felt like I was on house arrest. I had a cast on my arm, my leg. I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t really leave my house. I spent five months in a fog of pain medication that I couldn’t wait to get out of.
I was so broken up that for a while after the accident I was focused on just getting my health back. At some point, though, it’s like, “What do I do? Do I shy away from this?” I’m just not that type of person. And on top of all that, Blythe is like family. That in itself is a big part of why I came back.
Has your accident changed your opinion about work zone awareness? What can be done in your opinion to make work zones safer?
People are just too concerned about where they need to be. The average person—I don’t know if they just don’t get it, or they don’t care. You see people reading the paper, eating, putting on makeup, texting—all while they’re driving! I found out after my accident that traffic was driving around me lying on the side of I-85. That says something about the public’s mindset.
You know, we have signs five miles before our jobsite to alert drivers. Do they even see that? I don’t know. I do know that Blythe does everything within its power to keep employees safe. All kinds of safety training, certification—you name it. All that stuff is important, and it does make a difference. But there’s a limit to what you can prevent. Because safety depends on the public too.
Any words of advice for people getting into the industry?
Beware of your surroundings. Know where you’re at. Watch traffic. Watch equipment. Watch dump trucks. The biggest thing is, don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t know something. You have to communicate, because he traffic’s not going away. And just because you’ve done something 100 times before, don’t take your safety for granted.