By Evan Henerson
What should have been a routine day at a DWP UV disinfectant plant job site instead turned out to be a day that longtime friends, co-workers and Local 11 members Robert Zehm and Matthew Perez — and their union — will never forget. On that December morning in 2019, Zehm and Perez saved a crew member’s life.
Local 11 recognized the two proud members with Life Saving Awards at its September 2021 general membership meeting.
Here’s what transpired. Just before 9 a.m. on December 9, 2019, as the crew was getting ready for its break, Zehm, the general foreman, was alerted that one of his crew members appeared to be crying in one of the portable bathrooms. Zehn and fellow general foreman Perez went to check it out.
Upon inspection, it turned out that the crew member was slumped over, nearly unconscious, and not crying, but gasping. Zehm pulled him out, laid him on his back and started checking for signs of life. He got one of the foremen to call 911, got on the phone with a 911 operator, and was instructed to begin CPR until the paramedics arrived.
Zehm started doing chest compressions, and Perez came over and performed rescue breaths, with both men doing their best to keep the area clear of gathering crew members. After the two men had done nine or 10 cycles, help finally arrived, and emergency technicians took over, gave the now-conscious crew member medication, and took him to the hospital. The crew member had suffered from a drug overdose, and drug paraphernalia was found in the restroom.
“The day it happened, we didn’t know whether he was going to be OK,” Zehm said. “We were glad to be able to do what we could. You always want your guys to go home. We didn’t want to have to attend anyone’s funeral.”
“Nobody ever plans to do what we did,” added Perez. “You’re always trained, and you get your certifications in first aid and CPR, but who’s ever thinking, ‘Oh, you’re going to have to apply that’?”On the job site after the incident, Zehm and Perez talked to the crew members, making sure that everyone was OK. As an instructor at the ETI, Zehm was able to reference the incident to talk about the importance of safety and being prepared in the event of an emergency.
In February 2020, Zehm and Perez received notification from Local 11 that their heroic work would be honored. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed that in-person recognition for more than a year, by which time Perez had completed his 34th year on the job and had retried. But he was nonetheless happy to come back to Local 11 meet up again with Zehm (who had been Perez’s apprentice) and to reinforce the message of not taking things for granted.
“When everyone is doing tailgates in the morning, sometimes people are afraid to speak up because they’re afraid of asking a dumb question,” said Perez. “But the dumbest question is the one that you don’t ask. When questions aren’t asked, that’s when people end up getting hurt.”