“They did not know what to say, so they stop saying anything at all”

Behind every call for Industrial Manslaughter laws in Australia over the last twenty years has been is a deeply grieving family. We often see relatives on the TV News, standing outside of Courts, or at memorial sites. SafetyAtWorkBlog fears for the mental health of these people who have usually been traumatised by the death and whose experiences in the immediate aftermath and the months afterwards often exacerbates that trauma.

But people have been killed at work for centuries and often the current pain and anger is so raw that we fail to remember those who have already gone through this process because their voices have often been used and discarded.

SafetyAtWorkBlog spoke with several bereaved relatives who have experienced the loss of a relative at work. The focus was on those whose relatives died over a decade ago, to gain a more measured and reflective perspective and in order to understand what may be in the future for all of us who have workers in our families. I responded more emotionally to these stories than I expected and have found it difficult to write about the issues I intended to address, so I have decided to let these interviews and stories stand pretty much by themselves.

The first of these responses is from Jan Carrick. Her 18-year-old son Anthony died in 1998 on his first day at work. One article written in 2003 about Anthony’s death and that of other young workers said this:

“Anthony and a friend were employed by a labour-hire company, which simply dropped them off at a bulk livestock feed storehouse. The employer did not inspect the site and failed to give them safety instruction or equipment.”

I asked each of the people a series of questions that I will include at the end of this article. Jan recorded her response to these questions and provided the transcript. It is reproduced below:

I am not an activist as such. Before Anthony‘s death I would not speak to anyone but if you feel strongly enough about some things, all this changes. I got swept up in something that now I sometimes wish that I had not. Don’t get me wrong the things that I did I thought were good things at the time and we did manage to get some things changed.

Workplace death is like no other death. It is a hidden day . Until Anthony’s I did not take any notice of it; unlike car accidents where it is on the news and in the papers and talked about everywhere. This has now changed, and I hope in some small way I had something to do with this change.

Anthony’s death was made very public because he was only 18 and he was on his first day at work. When Anthony was killed no one wanted to talk to me or tell me what happened. All I was told was by two young police officers that came to my house saying they were sorry, was call an undertaker and arrange a funeral.

I found out what happened by the media. I was not told where the accident happened, or I was not allowed to go there. 21 years on I still do not know where he was killed other than it was Coode Road in Footscray.

I guess getting the word out that this is happening is what made me do what I did. Anthony’s death ripped all my family apart; everything changed. I worked dayshift and I would see Anthony at night. My husband worked nightshift and would see Anthony during the day. All that changed.

Anthony had one sister who had three small children that loved their uncle Anthony. She had to try to explain to them that he was not coming home to visit them anymore. His younger brother would not sleep in the room that they shared. We had to remove everything that reminded him of Anthony, including his bed, before Jason would go back into the room again. His older brother would not stay at home with me, although he lived there, and would come home at night to sleep. He withdrew into himself and spent a lot of the time at his mate’s place. Lucky for me his mate’s Mum was my friend and she would tell me how he was going.

I was left on my own. I did not, and still do not, see my extended family. They did not know what to say, so they stop saying anything at all.

I started with the union as a last resort, I guess. In some way it gave me a way of coping or so I thought. It was about three months after Anthony’s death and before the court cases started. At first it was just talking to OHS Reps but quickly got bigger and bigger to rallies and night sittings of Parliament . Because of Anthony’s age he was only 18 and it being his first day at work and the way the accident happened, the union ran with it and he became a poster boy for the Industrial Manslaughter laws. It was their way of getting the message out and I got swept up in all the hype. The union had posters and badges made with Anthony’s photo on them and they would be used in rallies and in Parliament and this would go on for months. It seemed like something was happening every week, and went on for a number of years before after and during the court cases as well.

After the laws were passed in the Lower House but not in the Upper House it all stopped, just as quickly as it started. During the court cases, the company was fined $50,000, the Managing Director $5,000 and the foreman was fine $2,000. All these fines were never paid.

As for the union, I was dropped like a hot potato, to the extent that they would not even take my phone calls when I needed to ask something. I had nowhere else to go. I am very afraid that this will happen to the families that are being used now. As I said before this was happening over years when I should have been using this time to get over Anthony’s death. When it all finished I just fell in a hole I had no family to talk to and still don’t.

I still do not mention Anthony’s death to my husband and he does not understand the work I did with the union. I was left on my own to pick up the pieces of my life. Although my family were proud of what I did they would not talk to me about it. Losing my family is just as hard as losing Anthony all over again. It is the old saying – if you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything. And that is what is happening. I can see Anthony in my four-year-old granddaughter, and I am afraid to tell Jason that, as I don’t know how he will react.

I used to have a home with the family in it, now I have a house with people in it. I have lost all my friends now no one comes around to see me anymore.

I don’t think the Industrial Manslaughter laws will have much effect. It will have to be a very blatant disregard for workplace safety to be enforced and unless the courts get serious these different penalties will not be handed down. Judges do not want to set a precedent. It is too late for Anthony, but I do not think jail will help. I do want to have companies held accountable for what happens on the worksite. If going to jail is what it takes so be it, but I doubt this is the answer.
I never saw Anthony‘s employer. I never got an apology. They never spoke to me. I did see them in court, they were making a joke that they would only get a fine and that they would go to the glovebox of the car and get the money they knew what they were going to do. They did not know I was there and could hear them.

I am very concerned for the families that the union is using now. I would like to tell the families not to get too involved with the union, don’t put your life on hold or expect too much from them. After they get what they can from you they will drop you like they did me.

Workplace accidents can be reduced with training and understanding. Everybody needs to work together. All the laws in the land will not stop these accidents from happening unless a more unified approach to health and safety is in place. Politicians need to understand that not everybody sits behind a desk in an office; not all places are safe for people out there. People work long hours, dangerous jobs on the road for long periods or just sweeping the floor like Anthony was. All these people need protecting, even from themselves sometimes.

More money is needed to be put in to training for OH&S reps and more workplace inspectors need to be trained. Although it is not their job to deal with families, they need to know that they are all a family has to provide the information needed.

Employers need to help the families also. Employees themselves need training to know that they will not lose their jobs when speaking out on workplace safety. A Code of Conduct needs to be done so police inspectors and emergency services can work together.

Families need to be treated with the respect they deserve. Something needs to be put in place to stop companies from going bankrupt just to get away from paying the fines. If the company cannot pay the fine and jail is the only answer, so be it.

I never received counselling or any other sort of support. I was never contacted by WorkCover and never knew that counselling was available to me 21 years on and I still suffer from depression. I have PSTD which I guess not only came from the work I did with the unions having to identify Anthony’s body or the coroner’s report that I have with the photos. But this report is the only thing I have that gives me true information as to what happened to Anthony .

Jan Carrick receives friendship and support from the people in GriefWork (but only recently), a longstanding support service for bereaved families that operates on a shoestring budget.

I thank Jan deeply for the time and effort she took to answer my questions.

In the next article in this series we hear from Andrea Madeley.

Kevin Jones

Below are the questions that were circulated. You can see that Jan has answered some of them in her story above.

• Everybody’s grief is different but there is a common thread of activism in some responses to work-related traumatic deaths. Some become safety activists as they want to spare others the pain and grief they are experiencing. Is this type of activity compatible with the healing process?
• A family death is always disruptive. Is the experience more disruptive when the death is work-related? If so, in what way?
• Work-related deaths are often politicised in the months shortly afterward. The death is often spoken of as indicative of lax OHS regulations, poor/bad decision-making from the employer, the absence of a union HSR, or slack enforcement from the OHS Regulators. Should relatives keep away from such discussions or engage in the politics?
• Many relatives seem to be prominent safety advocates for a couple of years and then fade from the media spotlight? Is this a conscious decision or part of the media’s fluctuating interest, or something else?
• If you could change one element of the investigation process to minimise distress, what would it be?
• Part of the activism is often being asked to speak in public, at seminars and union meetings or events. Does participating in such events help with grieving or worsen the distress?
• It seems that often following a traumatic death, marriages and families break apart? Should we expect extra strength from our remaining relatives or accept that these break-ups as an inevitable consequence?
• How important is religious faith in coping with a death of a relative?

• You have likely been asked about your thoughts on Industrial Manslaughter laws in the past. We are in the middle or a resurgence of those laws. What are your thoughts on possible jail sentences for company representatives?
• Would seeing your son’s employer being sent to jail help in your healing?
• Were you ever offered an apology from the employer? How important was this?
• Did you ever meet your son’s employer and discuss the incident?
• Have you ever participated in a restorative justice exercise related to your experience? Are you aware of RJ and do you think such a process would have helped you?

• What advice would you give to those relatives who have recently experienced a work-related death?
• What advice would you give to politicians to improve workplace health and safety?

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