Our killer work environment

Chris and Jenny Ryalls (foreground) and their children, Kade (left), Tristin and Milair Ryalls ...
Chris and Jenny Ryalls (foreground) and their children, Kade (left), Tristin and Milair Ryalls (holding daughter, Kenya), desperately miss their late son and brother, Corey, who was killed in a forestry accident in 1999. Photo by Linda Robertson.

Tomorrow, as Otago people mark International Workers Memorial Day, white crosses will be placed in the ground, each bearing the name of a person who has died at work. Kim Dungey talks to families whose loved ones did not arrive home from work and looks at what is being done to reduce New Zealand's shocking toll of workplace injuries.

Corey Ryalls
Corey Ryalls
It was a hot January evening and Jenny Ryalls thought it odd son Corey was not yet home from his new job with a logging contractor.

The 23-year-old was something of an adrenaline junkie. Days before, he and a mate had careered down a steep slope on Otago Peninsula on BMX bikes, picking up speed as they crossed Portobello Rd, rode out on to a wharf and flipped off a home-made jump into the water.

So when his boss appeared unexpectedly at the door about 6pm, Mrs Ryalls took a deep breath and asked: ''What's he done this time?''

''He hasn't done anything, Jenny'' a sombre Graham Mitchell replied.

''He's been killed.''

Ten years later, Teri Shaw would also receive devastating news. The Christchurch woman feared something was wrong because husband Dave, an electrical lift technician sent to a job in Southland, had not been answering his cellphone.

What she didn't know was that his body had gone undiscovered at the Edendale dairy factory for 16 hours.

On Tuesday, the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety will report to the Government on a New Zealand working environment that is twice as dangerous as Australia's and nearly four times as risky as the UK's.

Every year, more than 6000 New Zealanders suffer serious harm at work, more than 100 die in workplace accidents and 700 to 1000 die of work-related disease.

As the taskforce grapples with whether the country's health and safety system remains fit for purpose, Corey Ryalls' family has gathered at his parents' picturesque Outram farmhouse.

The air is charged with anger and pain. It's the first time in 14 years they have talked together about his death and not one of them has grieved properly.

''It's like a massive scar that stays inside you and keeps on reopening itself. It doesn't heal,'' explains Kade, who was 14 at the time of the 1999 accident and who idolised his big brother.

Corey had qualified as a draughtsman and was taking a gap year when a family friend and former neighbour gave him work with him in Berwick Forest. As his mother recalls, his third day on the job began without incident.

''I remember that morning him growling at me because I was fussing . . . Did he have enough water? Did he get his lunch? He told me, 'Go back to bed. I'm fine' and those were the last words he spoke to me.''

The family later learned Corey and a colleague were sitting having smoko when a short wire rope known as a strop broke, picking up a 100kg log and hurling it 26m through the air.

''It became like a bow and arrow,'' his father, Chris, explains, adding that Corey was hit on the back of the head as he fled.

Eight months later, when the case went to the district court, Graham Mitchell Logging Ltd admitted failing to take all practicable steps to ensure Corey's safety and was fined $20,000. The strop broke because corrosion, through lack of maintenance, left it unable to take the weight it should have borne, the judge said.

Corey was blameless and had been at what would normally be a safe distance.

United in their grief, the members of his family were nevertheless affected in different ways. Older sister Milair found it too difficult to be overseas and returned home, Kade has struggled to forgive Corey's employer, and Tristin, an 18-year-old high school pupil at the time of the accident, has barely spoken of it since.

While Chris still thinks of Corey often, being a fireman has given him a different perspective on death to the others, and he is a firm believer that when someone's time is up, it is up.

Jenny Ryalls keeps one of Corey's jerseys on the end of her bed, saying she does not want to forget him.

''For me as a mother it was very hard to watch my children go through the loss of a brother - seeing how it affected each of them differently and wondering, `has this loss made a change in their lives? Would they be the people they are today if they'd had more influence from their brother?'.''

All of them think families losing loved ones in workplace accidents should receive counselling, even though they would have denied at the time that they needed it.

Dave Shaw's 8-year-old daughter did see a therapist after he died, but it was too soon for her to think about moving on. She shut down and it was only last year, as she passed the pub he sometimes took her to for a Coke and crisps after a day out biking or swimming - a place she had seen hundreds of times since the accident - that the floodgates finally opened.

Mr Shaw didn't feel well on August 12, 2009. His wife suggested he call in sick. But the 39-year-old, who had been with Otis Elevators nearly 20 years, loved his job and would sometimes pull 12-hour shifts to get it done.

On August 13, he was working in the new drier tower at Fonterra's Edendale plant. It was a routine job that should have taken only a few hours but the lift would not budge.

A coroner later found the brake was mechanically stuck because of condensation on the brake disc. Mr Shaw was striking the brake with a screwdriver when the frozen disc released from the brake pad.

Because the normally safety-conscious technician had bypassed all of the inbuilt control systems and removed the battery from the control panel - plugging it directly into the brake to enable the lift to move - the safety system did not operate as it ought to and the lift moved, trapping him.

Mrs Shaw had never questioned her husband working alone but had had the occasional nightmare about him having an accident and reminded him to wear his safety harness.

Even now, she struggles to remember much of what happened in the following year.

''You're just numb. You wake up and think it's a bad nightmare and then reality hits home. Your day starts off like that every day with your heart sinking into your chest.

''If he'd had a disease or something where you'd had six months to a year's warning, I think that the grieving process would have half been over. But because it was instantaneous - he went to work one day and didn't come home - there was a huge amount of shock.''

With a positive attitude, the ''bad days'' have become fewer and further between, but his death was a big loss for their two children, who will not have their father at important events such as their 21st birthdays or weddings, and devastating for his colleagues, who were also long-term friends.

Criminal proceedings against Otis were withdrawn when a review by Labour Department lawyers, after the company pleaded not guilty, determined a successful prosecution was unlikely.

''That never bothered me. It had happened and there was nothing anyone could do about it. I'm more concerned about it not happening again,'' Mrs Shaw says, adding that was why she agreed to appear in a safety video for Otis employees.

Shocked to learn of New Zealand's poor record on workplace safety, she thinks there are many factors involved and no single solution.

''I'm not an expert on that sort of thing. I just know that years ago, you worked your 40 hours and you went home. There's no such thing as a 40-hour week now,'' she says, adding that her new partner works 60 to 70 hours a week in his concreting business and that is the ''norm'' in a city that is being rebuilt.

''People are going to work tired, more stressed and more lax and things go wrong when you haven't had enough sleep . . . It's the pressure these companies are putting people under to make a dollar and to hit the deadline. It all comes down to money ...''

AT 190,000, the average annual number of people claiming medical costs from ACC as a result of workplace accidents would fill Forsyth Barr Stadium six times over.

Last year's fatalities included a Sawyer's Bay man who drove off a farm track, a Dunedin man who was struck on the head by an air hose from a compressor while clearing a slip on the Milford road, and a lineman electrocuted while working up a power pole on a Northern Southland farm.

It's a record taskforce chairman Rob Jager describes as ''abysmal, unacceptable and unsustainable''.

Both the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River Coal Mine disaster and an independent report released this month were scathing of the Department of Labour (replaced last year by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment). Now, the Government wants a 25% reduction in workplace deaths and serious injuries by 2020.

From later this year, there will be a stand-alone Crown agency with a dedicated focus on health and safety - a key recommendation of the royal commission. Funding to the sector was increased in last year's Budget and action plans have been developed to target the worst areas, including construction, agriculture, forestry, manufacturing and fishing. But changes recommended by the taskforce could lead to the biggest shake-up of the health and safety sector in many years.

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