THREADS OF LIFE: Finding hope after tragedy

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By Susan Haldane

It was late on a summer afternoon when Carolyn Sim got the phone call that would change her life. Carolyn’s partner Dan Pelletier had fallen from a ladder and landed on his head. He was being taken for x-rays, but he was okay, Dan’s co-worker told Carolyn.

“I don’t know how I knew, but I just knew that it was bad, and that Danny was never coming home again,” Carolyn says. She worked as a brain injury rehabilitation counsellor, so she knew just how serious head injuries can be.

When the next call came, Carolyn’s fears were confirmed – Dan had severe brain injuries and had gone into a coma. The regional hospital where he’d been taken was doing emergency surgery to reduce swelling, and then planned to rush him to St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto where a neurosurgeon was standing by.

“I almost dropped the phone; I couldn’t breathe, I felt like I was suffocating,” Carolyn says. “Everything started to swirl around me.”

Along with their two teenage sons and Dan’s parents, Carolyn hurried to Toronto where Dan went through another surgery and was placed on life support. But Dan’s condition did not improve. Knowing his feelings, Carolyn made the heart breaking decision to remove the life support. Two weeks after his fall, Dan died with his family at his side.

Dan was working in residential construction, but hazards related to ladders, and to working at heights in general, are common across many sectors. In Canada, more than 42,000 workers are injured each year in falls (See http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/safety_haz/falls.html). More than a third of these injuries are falls from heights. The remainder are slips and falls, classified as “falls on the same level.”

Dan’s death was devastating for Carolyn and her family. The boys had been very close to their dad, sharing a love of motorcycles and motocross racing. They stopped racing, and struggled as they went through some of life’s major milestones – graduations, relationships, jobs and parenthood – without their dad to talk it over with.

As for Carolyn herself, “I stayed strong for my children and family on the outside but I felt like I lost everything – my life, my best friend, my husband, the one person I could always count on.”

Carolyn found support through Threads of Life – the Association for Workplace Tragedy Family Support. Threads of Life  was created by other families living with the results of workplace fatalities, serious injury and work related diseases. Threads of Life offers a program that pairs people with volunteers who have been through a similar experience – for example someone like Carolyn would be paired with another widow who could be a listening ear and shoulder to lean on. Threads of Life also offers information about the complex world of workplace investigations, inquests and compensation, and it provides family members with ways they can take action by helping to prevent future workplace tragedies.

In Dan’s case, charges were laid under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, and there was an inquest into his death. Carolyn and her family were involved in all the proceedings. The inquest made two recommendations:

  • That the general contractor on a residential construction site be responsible for a daily inspection of the entire job site prior to work commencing and should any hazards be determined, to be corrected immediately.
  • That the general contractor on a residential construction site be responsible to submit to any subcontractors any obvious dangerous situations unique to that job site prior to work commencing.

Again, while the recommendations are specific to the construction industry in which Dan worked, the principles make for good practices on any job site: making regular inspections to identify hazards, and communicating those hazards to all workers.

As part of her involvement with Threads of Life, Carolyn carries that safety message out to the public every chance she gets. She trained to become a member of the Threads of Life speaker’s bureau. This group of volunteers all have personal experience with a workplace tragedy, and they tell their stories at schools, workplace safety meetings, conferences and other events to ensure no other families have to live through a similar experience.

Carolyn has also become one of the volunteers, called Family Guides, who work one-on-one with others experiencing a workplace tragedy.

“I want to be able to be there for families who are dealing with the loss of a loved one,” she says, “and let them know they are not alone.”

There are a variety of ways individuals and companies can get involved with Threads of Life to promote safety and support families affected by workplace tragedy. The organization hosts an annual fundraising walk, called Steps for Life (www.stepsforlife.ca), which takes place in more than 30 communities across Canada each spring. Individuals can participate as walkers, volunteers or fundraisers. Steps for Life is also a perfect way for companies to demonstrate their safety commitment and boost employee involvement. Large and small companies can get involved in the Steps for Life Corporate Challenge.

Many companies also make Threads of Life their “charity of choice” and support the organization through fundraisers like golf tournaments, barbecues and dress-down days, and through corporate donations. The Ontario Petroleum Contractors’ Association has dedicated money raised through its annual golf tournament to Threads of Life, donating close to $15,000 in 2014 and 2015.

Threads of Life currently supports more than 2,300 family members across Canada. In addition to the peer-to-peer Volunteer Family Guides program, it offers events called Family Forums where families can gather to share their experiences and learn positive coping skills. Family members are provided with information including a quarterly newsletter, and with opportunities to get involved in workplace health and safety by telling their stories and representing Threads of Life at safety events and conferences. To learn more about Threads of Life, visit www.threadsoflife. ca.

Susan Haldane is Threads of Life’s manager, communications and marketing.

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