Honoring Worker Memorial Day
Shamus and Kortney are Judy’s sons.
Both sons died on-the-job, almost exactly one year apart from each other.
Shamus died in Afghanistan while serving our country; Kortney died at his workplace in Ohio.
Their mother, Judy, was my co-worker for 3 years.
When Judy told me of her son’s deaths, I was 15 years into my safety career and had by that point investigated numerous workplace deaths as an OSHA Investigator. I added Shamus and Kortney to an unfortunate collection of workplace fatality stories that I still carry with me and often share. Each story serves as a guide for the way I approach my work in the field of safety. Occasionally, someone will tell me my stories are depressing or scary, or “You only talk about sad things.”
Those comments make me bristle and feel like an insult the memory of someone’s child, parent, sibling, spouse, co-worker or friend.
Carrying these stories is a responsibility. It’s one I don’t take lightly. In fact, I’ve made sharing them a self-imposed mandate; partly because the memories don’t escape and I have an absolute belief in learning from historical lessons, particularly those written in blood.
When I share the story of the first workplace death I co-investigated as a young trainee, it is depressing, scary, and sad—they all are.
That first death led me to a remote sawmill where a supervisor had been pushed through the head-saw, amputating both legs. My job, as a trainee, was to help keep the victim’s co-workers calm enough to be interviewed while my eyes took in the scene, leaving an indelible mark. I’ve told the details of that story so many times, I cannot count. What went wrong that day speaks to the very heart of lock-out-tag-out, what can happen in real world situations when locks are removed in an effort to do the right thing. Telling that historical lesson with the hope it has saved lives honors that man’s life and the experience of his co-workers that day.
When I tell Nick’s story as I often do around the country as a keynote address, I am honoring his memory for his wife and daughter; the good work his employer did after Nick’s death and to prevent the same sort of death from happening again.
When I close my eyes, I clearly see a group of maintenance workers walking solemnly toward me pushing a work cart with their co-worker's tool belt—still full of tools—toward me. We formed a sacred and silent circle around the cart. I looked them each in the eye and asked if it was okay for me to touch their now deceased co-workers tools. The tools of a man with whom they worked shoulder-to-shoulder for years, who, after receiving an electrical shock, fell from ladder. He was on a simple mission to replace a fluorescent light bulb.
I tell his story when I talk about the importance of electrical safety training and I tell his story to honor that sacred circle I was welcomed into years ago.
When I see steel toe boots, I think of the last fatality I investigated. I see my brown leather steel toes covered and caked with corn mash from the debris field in an ethanol plant explosion. A fire marshal and I walking in the mash until we found all the tips to the torch set a young man was using to cut a hole in the top of a tank that exploded, launching him and the tank into the sky, coming to rest on a railroad track. I have drawn that scene on multiple white boards, flip carts and pads of paper, explaining hot work, atmospheric testing, lockout tag out, and cleaning and purging of vessels. I use the words of the deceased who questioned why he was seeing sparks when he cut with his torch, his gut instinct telling him there was danger because he lacked the training to confirm his gut and those directing his work assuring him there was no hazard.
Last week, an investigative reporter contacted me. He was writing about a recent workplace death and wanted to learn about the OSHA inspection process from someone who had done the job. I shared the technical aspects of how inspections are conducted, citations issued, etc. We didn’t get into the stories those of us who investigate death for a living carry, what we do with them or what it might be like to be the employee who went home when one of our coworkers or employees did not.
I don’t know what other’s experiences have been or what they do with their stories, but I suspect it’s similar to me and for our collective story; we have Worker Memorial Day each year on April 28th. It was established as a day of remembrance in 1971 by OSHA as the day we remember, we tell the human stories, we speak the names of our fallen co-workers, family members and friends to honor, teach and prevent the same from happening to anyone else.
Whose story are you sharing this year? How are you honoring mothers like Judy, or wives, daughters and co-worker’s like Nick’s?
Please share your stories; there is power and prevention in their history.