Christmas to New Year 2011
The Christmas shutdown period is usually reserved for the respite of workers after a hard year. A time for them to be with their families during the festive period.
While enjoying this downtime in 2011, I missed a phone call from my Dad, an electrician working nightshift on a rail upgrade project in Perth.
I bear the scars of a person who had his life changed so dramatically from this point that I find myself in a state of constant loss. If it not for my own family, I would not know how to improve.
On December 29 2011, my father was killed in a workplace tragedy.
About 2:30 am on the morning of December 30, I awoke to loud knocking. I got myself out of bed and opened the door.
Through the security screen I could see two police officers. “Mr Phelan?” the female officer asked and suggested that they come inside.
I let them in knowing in the back of my mind that it was not going to be good news they brought. I asked them what I could help them with but their reply came in the form of a question.
“You are aware that your father works in a high risk environment, yes?”
At this point I’m floored. I know exactly what is about to be said and I don’t want to hear it. I started to walk away and the officer said, “I’m sorry to inform you Mr Phelan but your Father was killed last night in a workplace accident.”
How on earth was I to respond to this? How did this happen? Where is he? How is Mum? Do Sean and Meaghan know? I could not speak. I was a mess, a severely wounded person.
Before I could gather my thoughts the police left and my beautiful wife had the computer searching for flights.
Five hours later I was in Perth and in my brother Sean’s arms. I tell you right know, we were hurting bad. Sean and I went straight to the morgue, only stopping for a moment on the way to sob and grieve.
At the morgue we were greeted by my Mum and my sister and her fiancé Rylan. In a few moments we are going to see our Dad. I am contemplating if I should but it is at this moment I realise I had not phoned him back from last night. Damn. This hurts me deep.
We are consulted by the coroners’ nurse prior to the viewing. He informs us that Dad’s injuries are extensive and too many to list from memory. He tells us to prepare ourselves and ushers us into the room.
There I see my Dad lying, wrapped in cloth. I assume this is needed as otherwise I would see first-hand the catastrophic injuries his body had endured. I am deeply hurt. This time it cuts me to the bone and I must sit. My brother and I take a strong hold on each other.
This is the pinnacle of my darkest moment. This moment resonates with me every day since and it is not nice. I wish this on no man.
My Dad was working for John Holland on a rail upgrade in the Perth suburb of Northbridge. The CBD network was to be sunken underground to allow for further expansion of the train network.
Deadlines were being pushed and most workers were doing overtime. The workforce was informed that the usual end of year break was out the window and they were to report in between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
In the late hours of the night of December 29, the crew was cleaning up after completing the shift’s objective. A dead track was called and workers began to clean up. My Dad’s role involved blasting debris away from the track using a pressure wand so his workmates could scoop it up and broom the surface clean.
Meanwhile, placed in a precarious position about 75m up a steep hill, on tracks leading directly to the pressure cleaning work force, was a tractor which converted for rail use (HiRail). An operator who had not received formal training in the use of the plant was beginning the task of removing the machine from the tracks.
This is done by activating a hydraulic system that removes the rail friction drive system from the rubber road wheels to establish road drive capability. In this task the operator activated both front and rear rail mechanisms at the same time which put the plant in a state of free wheel ability. The machine gently rolled back down the track towards the workers.
The operator pressed hard on the controls to urge it to reconnect with a drive ability but, unbeknown to him, this exacerbated the problem because he pressed the lever into a dead zone, past a cheap plastic sign stuck on the control panel acting as a physical stopper to prevent the lever going into said dead zone.
As the machine hurtled backwards the operator pressed the horn to warn people clear. As the horn had not been fitted to the rear of the plant during its conversion, it was not heard by anyone in its path.
Workers who witnessed all this unfolding screamed at my Dad to clear out but he could not hear them because he was wearing ear protection and using a high pressure cleaning tool strong enough to cut through rock. The tractor kept rolling, hitting my Dad and killing him instantly.
As a result of John Holland’s poor job safety, bad management, an unacceptable attitude to risk management and pushing the workforce beyond safe limits, my Dad is dead.
Many unsafe work practices have been exposed through the Comcare investigation of this accident.
Please listen to me: “With good work practices, effective communication and a cultural belief that safety is above all else, every accident is avoidable.”
It is now a few years since the accident. I am taking every day as it comes but it is hard to begin and hard to end.
I have missed my Dad every step of the way and I guess I will continue to miss him every step in the future.