A terrible burden: the death of a coworker

February 16th, 2006 by Julie Ferguson

Jon’s post about the roofer who fell to his death stayed with me last night. Maybe because it occurred in a neighboring town, maybe because I’ve been made uncomfortably aware of the frequency of death by falls after regularly reading the Weekly Toll, maybe because work deaths seem more personal after having just witnessed the grief of the miners’ families. Or maybe it was just this one line that spoke volumes: “The contractor, and Stacy’s two other co-workers, were too distraught to comment.”
I can well imagine. A 40 year old life snuffed out in an instant, the difference between life and death likely coming down to the lack of a few straps of cloth. Think of the burden of telling the family. Think of the burden of facing the same work scene again the next day.
Often, we tend to think of work deaths as occurring someplace else, to other people, in large, impersonal companies that flagrantly violate safety standards. Bad employers. Unsafe industries. Careless workers. But the reality is that work deaths happen every day in workplaces like the one you are in today, or like the one where your next door neighbor works. Work deaths occur in small, friendly workplaces just as they do in mega-corporations; they occur in owner-operated businesses with bosses who care about their workers just as they do in companies with unscrupulous and tyrannical bosses; they occur in low-risk industries as well as high.
I’ve been fortunate in never having been at a worksite when a death occurred, but I have spoken to employers and coworkers who have described such devastating events. When it has been a recent event, the depth of the emotion is almost palpable: horror, grief, anger, and guilt. When it has been an event that occurred in the past, the raw emotion usually just lies below the surface, easily tapped by recall. These tragic events carry a huge emotional toll and a crushing burden of guilt. Simply think how you’ve felt at the loss of a valued family member, friend, or colleague – we’ve all been there. Loss is a terrible burden in and of itself. But now think if the death had occurred right before your eyes, perhaps in a gruesome fashion, and perhaps in a way that you might have prevented. It’s terrible to contemplate. To prevent senseless work deaths, we must all be our brother’s keeper.
Grief resources
Coping with the Death of a Coworker
When a coworker dies (PDF)
Recovering from the death of a co-worker – tips for employers and supervisors
Fall prevention
The myths and facts about falls
Fall protection