Advocate helps families after workplace deaths

2013-01-04T22:42:00Z 2013-01-05T06:19:42Z Advocate helps families after workplace deathsJennifer DeWitt The Quad-City Times
January 04, 2013 10:42 pm  • 

Grief can be a powerful motivator.

It was the profound grief that comes from losing your child that led Ron Hayes on a nearly 20-year journey to fight for worker safety, improve the treatment of families affected by a workplace death, and to support those families through their darkest days.

In 1993, Ron and Dotty Hayes lost their 19-year-old son, Patrick, to a grain silo accident in Florida. It was how the Fairhope, Ala., couple was treated in the hours after the tragedy as well as the nightmare that followed as they sought answers from state and federal agencies that prompted them to create the F.I.G.H.T. (Families in Grief Hold Together) Project.

“We were treated so horribly the night Pat was killed,” Hayes recalled in a telephone interview. “I told Dot if every family is treated this way, something has got to happen.”

Through F.I.G.H.T., Ron Hayes has become a recognized national expert on workplace safety, testifying before Congress, successfully advocating for rule changes with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, and lecturing thousands of workers on workplace safety. But most rewarding, he said, is the work he has done counseling nearly 700 families through their grief and the bureaucracy related to a workplace fatality.

His journey now has brought him to the Quad-Cities, where he is helping a mother who lost her son to a workplace accident. Theresa Carey-Moore of Rock Island said she lost her “best friend” when her only son, David Carey, 28, of Coal Valley, was killed on the job Aug. 23, 2010, at JMF Co. in Bettendorf.

He and another employee were loading copper pipe onto a truck at the plumbing supply company when the load shifted and the accident occurred. Carey-Moore said that according to OSHA’s findings, the workers were using a sling with a broken safety strap and the sling slipped off the pipe. Carey was knocked off the truck, and the pipe fell, hitting him on the head. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Can anyone help?

Since Carey’s death, his mother has battled with issues related to the life insurance, workers’ compensation and with Iowa OSHA’s investigation of the death — including the agency’s loss of Carey’s file. It was her battle with the state OSHA office that led her to the federal OSHA and ultimately to Hayes and his advocacy group.

“Part of me that was here wanted to kick and scream and crawl up in a ball,” she recalled of the grieving. “But the part of me that loves God didn’t want David to go through that. I know he still is hurting for me and knowing how devastating it is for me.”

So amid her sorrow, Carey-Moore worked tirelessly to deal with paying off her son’s remaining bills, including his funeral. After first being told there was a company life insurance policy, it turned out Carey — who started his job as a temporary worker in March 2010 — died one week before his eligibility began.

Company officials at JMF Co. declined to comment when contacted Thursday.

Carey-Moore also received only the minimum payment from workers’ compensation. Because her son was unmarried and had no children, she — as the parent — was not allowed to sue for wrongful death.

“I had to sell all his possessions to pay for his funeral,” she said, recounting how the funeral expenses were compounded by hospital bills, his outstanding regular bills and new attorney fees.

But her pain did not stop. She was told she could get copies of the OSHA investigation — including interviews at the job site — when it was complete. But while attending a statewide Worker Memorial Service in Des Moines in 2011, she went to the OSHA office in person and learned parts of the file were missing.

That sent Carey-Moore on a fight all the way to the federal OSHA office in Kansas City, which turned out to be a blessing as Regional Administrator Chuck Adkins took over her case and connected her with Hayes.

“They said, ‘Ron helps people like you who are dissatisfied and couldn’t get through the system,’ ” she recalled.

After learning of Hayes’ troubles when his son died and spending hours on the telephone over several months, she said she finally felt like she had someone in her court.

“I remember thinking before meeting him, ‘Isn’t there anybody out there to help me with the process?’” she said.

Finding an advocate

Adkins, whose Region 7 office oversees the states of Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa, said his office determined there had been mistakes made by the state OSHA office. “The case file was lost, and that was what her complaint was about. We did a pretty extensive investigation.”

In the past five years, he has sent many problem cases to Hayes.

Although Carey-Moore had been working her way through the system, she credits Hayes’ intervention with helping convince the federal office to reopen the case. But she also had not been willing to give up.

“Number one, I’m Belgian, and on the other end was David,” she said. “I would go to the end of the world for him. I had to follow this through to the very end.”

By last July when Hayes and Carey-Moore first connected, he said “all the negative had already happened.”

“The problem was what she was originally told of the information she could have was incorrect,” Hayes said. Her experience is not unlike that faced by many families, he added.

“I help them understand what they can and can’t get (from OSHA),” he said. “They don’t understand what OSHA is hiding, and it’s not that they are hiding it. There is information they don’t have to release by law.”

Changes made

“What we were shooting for working with OSHA was trying to get Ms. Moore through the year (2012) so she can start out this new year in a different light, a different spirit,” he said. “She is just a different person than the first day I met her.”

Helping give her some solace was a Certificate of Life that she received in the mail from Adkins’ regional OSHA office. The framed document — an idea that began with Hayes — is sent to all families his office works with when there has been a workplace fatality.

The printed certificate “commemorates the life of the deceased, is signed by me, and Ron says that is what’s important,” Adkins said. “The Certificate of Life is demonstrating a little more that we recognize them, care for them and regret what happened to their next of kin.”

With more than 40 years at OSHA, Adkins said it has been from conversations with Hayes that his staff has learned to improve how they work with families.

“He has become one of our family’s members really,” he said. “Ron has helped us understand where the next of kin are coming from and what their thought process is and what they need in the grieving process.”

Adkins said it is not his office’s role to deal with the death but rather to follow the protocol for investigating. “We’re not chaplains, though I think the agency needs a chaplain.”

Certificate of Life

For Hayes, it is small victories like the Certificate of Life as well as the larger victories — working for stronger workplace standards and enforcement — that make his work worthwhile.

“It has taken a long time to work with OSHA, but now they send me families like Ms. Moore,” he said, adding that her case prompted changes at Iowa OSHA.

Adkins said her situation has resulted in some new procedures in how case files are handled so what happened to her son’s case “should not happen again.”

Hayes’ own loss led OSHA to revise its standards for protecting almost 250,000 workers at 24,000 grain elevators and mills. The rule revision came in 1996, just three years after his son suffocated in a grain silo.

“We’ve made OSHA do a lot of things and a lot of things behind the scenes,” he said. “There have been a lot of good changes that God has helped me to do. He has helped open doors.

“I don’t get every family,” he said, citing statistics that 12 workers are killed a day on the job. “I couldn’t handle every family.”

Carey-Moore is still not completely satisfied with how her situation resolved, including the fine that OSHA levied against JMF Co. The company paid a $10,000 fine for eight serious violations related to Carey’s death, according to OSHA documents.

“I’m not calling it satisfaction, but I got it as far as I could,” she said.

“But I understand Ron’s frustration and why he is working so hard to get these penalties changed,” she said, vowing to join Hayes in his mission. “I’m going to make sure I do everything in my power so this doesn’t happen to another mother, father or child.

“I’m going to be working with Ron a long time to make sure people pay attention,” she said, adding that companies and employees “need to know it’s worth those couple of seconds it takes to wear proper protective gear and save a life. You could be that next fatality.”

Copyright 2014 The Quad-City Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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