The Day of Mourning is observed annually on April 28 to remember and honour those who have died, been injured or suffered illness in the workplace. In recognition of the Day of Mourning, we are sharing stories from some of the families affected by workplace tragedy. Their powerful accounts reveal profound loss, personal strength and the value of support. In particular, they demonstrate the critical importance of prevention.
At a jewelry store on Father’s Day back in 2001 I picked out a gold “#1 dad” necklace. I remember crying so hard the jeweler practically gave it to me for free. I wish I could have given it to him earlier.
Dad was a hard worker. Raising four kids, he had to be. Over the years, my father had many jobs, but after writing to get his welder’s ticket he worked at one company for the last 15 years of his life. This company made nuclear and coal boilers to be used in the power generation market. When he wasn’t at work, he would be watching TV, reading a crime novel or at one of my brothers’ hockey games.
In his last few years, Dad worked as much as he could. My mother had been the victim of a severe rear end collision on her way home from work and hasn’t worked since. This changed the dynamic in my family and left Mom very dependent on Dad. If he was in severe pain he hardly showed it, probably to stay strong for Mom who was dealing with her own world of pain at the time.
June 13th, 2001 is the day I will never forget. I was 16 and out babysitting at the time I got the call. On my arrival home, I saw the front door open with one paramedic in the doorway and two kneeling by the couch.
Dad was holding an air mask to his face and looked quite out of it. I was scared as Mom and I followed the ambulance to the hospital. I didn’t comprehend the magnitude or severity of my dad’s illness. It was only at the start of June he began showed signs of being sick. Our family doctor assumed he must be suffering from mono or strep throat, and sent him home with antibiotics. Little did we know that sped up his illness and instead of having months to live, he had only weeks or days.
When my family arrived at the hospital we were never told that paramedics had administered CPR twice because Dad’s heart stopped. We were still under the assumption that he was having complications due to mono or strep. After a few hours my father was transferred to another hospital and we were finally given the diagnosis: acute myeloid leukaemia. He only had a 50/50 chance of making it through the night.
I was woken up to the catastrophic news. My brothers and I rushed to the hospital. By the time we got there, Dad had already passed – at the age of 42. My world had come crashing down that night. The funeral was on Father’s Day and the “#1 dad” necklace was buried with him.
The weeks after were a blur and it took almost a year to receive my father’s autopsy report. It finally gave us some answers. He died from a type of leukaemia that is caused by benzene. Benzene is a carcinogenic chemical found in industrial cleaners, gasoline, cigarettes and automobile exhaust, just to name a few. After speaking with a few of my father’s co-workers we determined that an industrial cleaner they use to clean the tubes before they are bent contains benzene. What was also mentioned: improper personal protective equipment used and the frequency they used this cleaner. My father along with the other employees would use rags soaked with this chemical cleaner, applying it liberally with cotton gloves, which would be wet with this cleaner for a third of their day.
For a long time after my dad’s passing, I was angry and stopped caring about school; my grades slipped and I was lucky if I was actually passing. Mom was in such a deep depression that she didn’t seem to notice what I was doing. There have been countless times she has called an ambulance when she gets severely sick and her symptoms seem to replicate my father’s last days. Ever since Dad’s death, there has been a role reversal and I have been the parent, always on call and trying to pick up the pieces when they fall.
As years go by, there is still not a day that a memory of Dad does not come floating through my thoughts. I have missed out on so much with my dad—having him at my high school and college graduations, being able to call him if I needed help or advice. Father’s Day seems to be a cruel reminder of what I’ve lost.
The years have brought a new sense of peace with my pain and I can now share stories of my father without crying. Nowadays, I feel Dad would be happy with the way my life has turned out. I have an amazing husband and two beautiful children my Dad will never meet. I relish the times I get to pass on some advice to my children that my dad had taught me. The stories I tell to my kids or husband usually end with, “I wish you could’ve met him”, or “He would’ve really liked you”.
It takes accountability for your own health and that of your co-workers to make sure the proper precautions are taken with the materials we use at work. Be curious and read the label, request the Material Safety Data Sheet for any chemicals you come in contact with before you use them. You can be exposed to dangerous chemicals in various ways and you should care about your life enough to want to know what you come in contact with. Wearing the proper PPE and refusing unsafe work could save your life.
In recognition of the Day of Mourning, please join us in lighting a digital candle to remember the workers we have lost and the families, friends and colleagues whose lives have been forever changed. www.pshsa.ca/lightacandle