LEST WE FORGET: DEATH ON THE JOB

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It’s chilling, the thought that each workplace fatality starts with someone heading off to work on a normal day, having no idea their time on earth is about to end. Likely without a goodbye to the ones they love, or any  sort of meaningful conversation at all before leaving the house. It’s out the door, off to work, never to return. Bereft survivors are left to mourn not only their terrible loss, but also the lack of a proper farewell, haunted that something so utterly final could happen on an otherwise routine day at work.

It happened again this week with the shocking killings at the Western Forest Products sawmill in Nanaimo. Shot dead were mill workers Mike Lunn, 62, a father, grandfather and a lone brother among seven sisters, and 53-year old hockey coach and father Fred McEachern, described by a co-worker as having “tree sap in his veins”. A message written on one of Lunn’s red T-shirts put up at the mill site read: “Daddy, you really were the best father a daughter could ask for. Love, your princess.”

Of course, these two workplace fatalities were unusual. Besides the violent circumstances, they were not connected to on-the-job duties, and they were big news. Most worker deaths attract little public notice, chalked up as “just one of those things”. They die in virtual anonymity. Beyond family, friends and co-workers, their passing is little remarked on, far removed from the outpourings of support and processions whenever a police officer or firefighter dies in the line of duty. But the impact is just as profound.

Linda Dorsett knows all about it. On a fateful September day in 2004, the last thing she expected was never again seeing her husband come through the front door.  Sean Dorsett, an experienced commercial fisherman and certified diver in Campbell River, was making a routine dive to untangle his boat’s anchor. Something went wrong, and Dorsett drowned. Linda’s first reaction was denial. “I kept calling his cellphone,” she remembered . “I was in shock. I didn’t believe it. I wanted to talk to the fishing company, his buddies, anyone that could tell me this was a mistake.”

On Tuesday, Linda Dorsett was among the speakers during an emotional ceremony at the waterfront Jack Poole Plaza to mark this country’s National Day of Mourning for workplace deaths. Although Linda was eventually able to move on from her husband’s death, raise their two young sons and keep financially afloat, the thought of the devastating day she lost her husband renewed her sorrow.

“There was never a dull moment when Sean was around, but a perfect storm of events changed our life forever. The world of grief entered my life. If only he could have said ‘goodbye’, or passed on a few words of wisdom to our sons,” she said, wiping away tears.

Using her own experience, Linda Dorsett now counsels other survivors of workplace tragedies as part of WorkSafeBC’s Family Peer Support Program. “You think you’re the only one to ever feel such grief, but sadly, you are not,” she told the large, sombre crowd. Noting pledges by employer, union and government representatives to dedicate their organizations to do even more to combat on-the-job fatalities, she paid tribute to the annual Day of Mourning, which has grown significantly in size and prominence over the years. “Days like this honour those who died and gives those left behind a little hope, too.”

While much is made of the 158 casualties suffered by Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, and rightly so, nearly as many B.C. workers were killed on the job over just the last two years. About  the same number  succumbed to the long, painful inroads of occupation-related disease, particularly asbestosis. In Canada, nearly 1,000 workers died from work-related causes last year, about three a day. Globally, a worker dies every 15 seconds. These are grim statistics that should shock us all. Each death is one too many, but the toll continues. Meanwhile, the number of unscrupulous employers jailed for wanton disregard of safety on the job is zero. B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair is onto something when he calls for all workplace fatalities to be investigated by the RCMP.

With government flags at half-staff, solemn statements and Vancouver’s Olympic flame lit at Jack Poole Plaza, the Day of Mourning has become a sort of Remembrance Day for workers, all of whom wanted to live, none of whom needed to die. “Every workplace injury is preventable,” WorkPlaceBC chair George Morfitt reminded those present.

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The day also gives families of the dead a chance to pay their respects and once more mourn their loss. Numerous family members, including children, were present on Tuesday, their sad faces attesting to their bereavement.

Before a final procession led by a ceremonial piper and honour guard, the speeches ended with a heartfelt poem written and read out by Grade 5 student Silver Kuris. The youngster was honouring her father, who died in a workplace accident Jan. 22, 2011. She entitled her poem: “My Daddy”.

“I know my Dad is up in heaven./He’s been there since I was seven…It’s not fair to lose a Dad./It makes me sad, it makes me mad!/Dads shouldn’t die, just going to work./It just isn’t right, that dangers may lurk.”

In her rhythmical, sing-song, 10-year old voice, the youngster concluded: “I love you, Dad…Love, Silver.”

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