Workers’ Memorial Day
By David Y. Lee
Every two hours, an American worker dies from a work-related injury, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics based on 2010 data (the latest available). There were many conversations this past weekend such as the one Tonya Ford had about her uncle, Bobby Fitch, with his daughter, Jessica Fitch and one of his sisters, Patty Mick. He was killed on the job three years ago in Lincoln, Nebraska. Ford serves as secretary for Public Welfare Foundation grantee United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, based in Lexington, Kentucky.
Around 8:45 or 9:00 am on January 29, 2009, it was kind of cold and snowy in the morning, a little bit of snow but the sun was shining. My uncle went on the walkie-talkie. Well, our understanding is that he went on the walkie-talkie and said he was going on break. Then he was told on the walkie to go do something when he got back after break. He said “okay.” He stepped on the belt-operated manlift. Something went wrong. We are unsure. And he fell off that belt-operated manlift, ricocheted in a building, in a grain elevator. You can’t touch the walls. They are far from where you are standing. He is ricocheting off those walls. He falls on an air filter for the building and disconnects it from the building. There is a dent from my uncle on that vent. He slid off that, and fell through another manhole an additional 40 feet, where he landed on the cement ground below. Sadly my father came and found him that day, lying in a puddle of his own blood.
My aunt Cindy, who is my dad’s middle sister, called me and said that your dad got hurt at work, and that you need to come to the hospital. I hadn’t gotten up or ready yet, so I was in a panic mode. She came over and got me. That’s all she said, “Dad is in the hospital and we need to go right now.” She had a terror in her voice. I think she knew what had happened, but she didn’t tell me yet at that point. The hospital wasn’t too far from my home. We went down there and, it wasn’t a pastor, but it was somebody from the church who took us into a room. It was just aunt Cindy, me, and the pastor-lady. She just flat-out said, “Your dad didn’t make it.” I was completely shocked to hear those words. I was picturing my dad in ICU, still alive, that scenario. Not that he had just passed. So that was very hard. And you go through your mind when was the last time you talked to him, did you tell him that you loved him?
I got contacted at work at 9:30 in the morning saying that my brother had had an accident. Some person from where my sister worked had called me. I said, “What brother?” Bobby had been there (at Archer Daniel Midland Plant) for 32 years, so you don’t think of anything. When I found out the information that he fell, and that he was at a hospital, and he had died, it was devastating for me.
The phone rang and I was at work. It was my cell phone that rang. I hadn’t been at my job for very long, and I remember seeing my mom’s number come on the phone. Right then I thought, “Great, something is wrong.” I just had a gut feeling that something was wrong. Because my mom never calls my cell phone at work. That is my rule – you don’t call cell phones while at work. And my cell phone rang. I remember I picked it up and my mom just yelled my name five or six times. I couldn’t figure out why she was yelling my name. I thought maybe the reception was bad. I remember standing in the middle of my office. I had a cubicle office so there were many other people in my office. I can remember yelling my mom’s name. My mom goes, “There’s been an accident at ADM,” and I said okay. She said, “It is Uncle Bobby.” I said, “What do you mean?” I naturally thought a finger, you know, something not so major as this. Then I thought why would she call me? Why would she be calling me if it was just a finger, they’ve gotten hurt at work before. All of a sudden she just screams, “He’s dead. He’s dead.” Right then, I can remember walking to my boss – I must have had a look on my face like no other. Because she was in a meeting and she stood up and ran to me. At that moment I said I needed to get to the hospital. I left and I got to the hospital as soon as I could.
So that was early morning. We needed to call family. It was difficult because my brother was at Kearney (University of Nebraska at Kearney). I didn’t want to tell him over the phone because it was about three hours away. I told him that dad got hurt really bad and that he needed to get down here. He was, unfortunately, the last one to come. He did not get to see my dad at the hospital. They wouldn’t keep my dad around. I was able to see my dad at the hospital. I saw all his cuts and bruises, all bandaged. That was hard to see, but I wanted to see him while I could.
The autopsy said he broke every bone in his body but his pinky.
The funeral was shortly after. I can remember all of it being a daze. With my parents being divorced, I was the one in charge of everything, and making all of the decisions. And as a child who lost her parent that is very hard to do. I did it, but it isn’t something you ever picture doing. It was so unexpected. I will always remember it. Whether that is good or bad, I don’t know. But I do remember all the support at my dad’s funeral. There were a lot of people there that I didn’t expect to come. So that was nice to have.
Before my uncle died, I never realized how many incidents at work happen. Fourteen people a day die from preventable workplace incidents. Fourteen. That is nearly 5,000 a year. Think of all the people who will receive a call after their loved ones go to work. And they never get that chance to say, “Goodbye.” They never get that chance to say, “I love you.” They will always have questions in their minds, “What if? What happened? Why? When? Where?” And a lot of those questions are never answered. Never. And it leaves a hole in your heart.
He and I were always super close. He shared all of his problems with me, and I shared all of my problems with him. I know in life his biggest thing was to see his two children, Jessica and Jeremy, graduate from college and get married. Jess had just graduated from college and Jeremy had just started college. And at this time right now, Jessica is getting married in two weeks and this is something that he always wanted. The feeling I have now that is really hard for me is that I know this was his wish, and not to have him here for that is very, very hard. Because I loved and adored my brother. And the accident was senseless. If they would have protected him around that manlift, he would be here today to see all of this. Having this [remembrance] every year makes it harder for me to accept the fact that this happened. Because I’m still very angry about what happened. And I think what Tonya is doing is great. It helps other families get through this. I just kind of wanted to share this with you, about how special he was to me. He will always be in my heart. I hope this helps other families out too, to realize that Tonya has done a lot of work. She has had a lot of safety issues resolved. Hopefully that will keep happening. Hopefully people won’t have to go through this hardship.
The thing that I remember most about my dad is just being my biggest fan. I played all different kind of sports all throughout my life, and whether it was home games or away games, he was always there. He worked long hours with his company, he didn’t get home until 7 and he still came to my games. So that is the biggest thing I will always remember and carry on, and that I would like to do for my children because I think that is a great memory for your kids to have. He was vocal, very vocal. He’d yell, “Go Jess!” If I did something wrong, or just anything he could help improve – I played volleyball and he tried to think of ways for me to jump higher. He made this weighted vest. I had to wear this weighted vest before games. He was like, “And then you’ll take this off and be so much lighter and jump higher.” I was like, “Oh, good Lord.” So I remember in high school when you’re dressing up nicely and then I have to wear this weighted vest. I’d put a coat over it so no one would know. I was so embarrassed.
It is hard to see my dad go to work every day. There is a fear that I’m going to get a call and that it is going to be about my dad. There is a fear that I’m going to have to tell my kids that their grandpa died. There is a fear that I’m going to have to tell my mom. And that is one thing that I do not want to do. I never realized how dangerous this job was. Never realized. For 32 years, my uncle, my dad, even my grandfather before them, came home after work. That was it. Go to work, come home, eat, do it again. It was just that. And now I have the fear that – what if? What if this happened to my dad? Will I be able to live with this? No. I won’t. Can I change this? I don’t know. It is something where you sit here, you hear all those commercials “One voice, it takes one voice.” Well, you can scream to the top of DC and sometimes that one voice doesn’t get you anything. But you keep speaking and hopefully you’ll reach someone and make a difference.
In recognition of Workers’ Memorial Day, Tonya Ford, secretary for United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, organized the first Nebraska Safety/Awareness Expo. It featured sessions such as What is OSHA?, Worker Safety for Teens, Grain Safety, Why Have a Safe Workplace? and All Protection and Forklift Safety. But more importantly, she brought together families who also lost loved ones – wives like Jana Wilson, whose husband Tim died in a lift accident while working at a meat packing plant in Nebraska City, Nebraska. And parents like Albert and Diane DeLeon, whose 19-year-old son Emilio was electrocuted in Grand Island, Nebraska after coming into contact with power lines.
We all have the same story. It may be someone’s son who died. And then I know another family from Nebraska who lost their son. It may have been their father. The good thing about the USMWF organization is that we may not have someone in your state that relates, but we have people all over the United States. So like my cousin who is getting married in two weeks can reach out to Katherine’s sister Joanna because she is getting married in a month. And they both lost their dad. So they are both being walked down the aisle by the spirit of their father who is not there. They can relate and connect, talk to each other and lean on each other. That is what we want to offer to the families. We want them to know that you are not alone. That is why we are here.
You can view a photo gallery of Ms. Ford’s remembrances of her uncle Bobby and Workers’ Memorial Day here.
ABOUT THE PUBLIC WELFARE FOUNDATION
The Public Welfare Foundation supports efforts to advance justice and opportunity for people in need. These efforts honor the Foundation’s core values of racial equity, economic well-being, and fundamental fairness for all. The Foundation looks for strategic points where its funds can make a significant difference and improve lives through policy and system reform that results in transformative change. For more information, visit www.publicwelfare.org. Follow the Foundation on Twitter or on Facebook.