When Alyssa Grocutt’s father passed away, the funeral home engraved his fingerprints on a necklace for her to keep as a keepsake.
Thirteen years later, Alyssa still wears the necklace on a daily basis. It’s the only physical object she now carries with her to remind her of her father, but in 2008 – just after his death at an oil sands site in northern Alberta – her grief was so raw that she clung to everything it touched. or used.
“There was a screwdriver he had that I slept the longest with. I slept in his T-shirts,” says Alyssa, who was 11 at the time.
Kevin Grocutt was 40 years old and had been working as a heavy-duty mechanic under contract with Suncor Energy Inc. for 10 months when the broken down haul truck he was trying to repair rolled over, pinning him under the tire.
Alyssa was at home with her mother, who was preparing dinner, when a police officer knocked on the door.
“It definitely made me grow faster than a lot of my peers,” says Alyssa. “It was very difficult.”
Kevin Grocutt was one of 1,035 people who died in Canada from work-related causes in 2008, according to statistics from the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada.
Since then, an average of 945 people have died as a result of industrial accidents or occupational diseases each year in this country, according to the same source. Although the exact number fluctuates slightly up and down, it has not decreased significantly over the years despite According to some experts, Canada has some of the strictest occupational health and safety laws. of the developed world. This is also despite ever-increasing awareness campaigns, improved technology and corporate protocols.
“I often hear people say, ‘Oh, with new technology, we have to see those numbers go down.’ But that’s not the case,” says Alyssa, who is now a doctoral candidate at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., where she studies the impact of workplace injuries and fatalities on family, co-workers and the victim’s supervisors.
“When we look at the situation over time, we see that these numbers are either stable or increasing.”
In recent months, a series of high-profile workplace deaths at Suncor and the resulting criticism of the company by well-known American activist investor Elliott Investment Management have brought the issue of workplace safety under the projectors.
Since 2014 alone, the Calgary-based company has had at least 12 fatalities at its northern Alberta oil sands facilities, more than all of its industry peers combined. Former CEO Mark Little pledged earlier this year to fix the issue, and the company conducted an independent security review. Yet despite these efforts, in July another Suncor contract worker died on the job. The company announced Little’s resignation the next day.
Kris Sims, who has been named interim CEO until a permanent replacement is found, told analysts last month that the company already knew what it needed to do to improve its safety performance and now had to “execute”. He did not provide details, but the company is expected to host an investor presentation this fall to update the financial community on its plans.
“Suncor, a great company, continually seeks to control and improve quality and yet there continue to be tragedies,” says Shirley Hickman, founder and executive director of Threads of Life, a nonprofit organization that aims to support families affected by work-related deaths, injuries and illnesses.
“So what happens to the small employer who doesn’t have the same resources as a Suncor? There is more and more promotion around safety at work, so what is this piece of the puzzle that we are missing? »
Hickman – whose own son Tim was about to turn 21 and worked part-time for the City of London, Ontario. in March 1996, when he was fatally injured in an arena explosion, said she believed many organizations were still struggling to embed safety into workplace culture. They may have all the proper rules and procedures on paper, but shortcuts are always taken at work.
“If a worker sees something they think is unsafe, they should feel free to report it to their supervisor,” Hickman said, adding that she thinks many workers are still hesitant to be the “squeaky wheel.”
“And if they are not heard, they must have the confidence to step down – or, if necessary, quit their jobs. But it’s hard to do. »
Calgary’s Wynny Sillito says she wishes more people were aware of the ripple effects of workplace accidents and injuries. In 2011, she was a 23-year-old paramedic, part of a team that responded to reports of accidental chemical releases at an oil and gas site near Grande Prairie, Alberta. While trying to help the injured worker, Sillito herself was exposed and suffered chemical burns all over her upper body.
She recovered from her injuries, but Sillito’s mental and emotional journey was tough. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which she still suffers from to this day.
“You don’t have to be the one who loses a limb or loses a piece of yourself for your life to change forever,” Sillito said.
Because she herself was injured at an oil and gas site, Sillito said she found the headlines about Suncor and its series of “devastating” tragedies.
“Oil and gas is this big, wide industry and so many people are connected to it in one way or another,” she said. “Any time there’s a death, no matter what caused it – anyone who loves someone who works in oil and gas will eventually feel that stress.”
That’s certainly true for Alyssa Grocutt. Every time a workplace fatality makes the headlines, she thinks back to that day in 2008 that changed her life forever.
“It’s hard to hear about another death, especially when it’s in a place similar to where my father was. Some are even in similar situations,” she said. , I think of the families who stayed behind and also of the colleagues who had to witness it.”
Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press
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