Almost seven years after her son died following a workplace accident, Johanna LeRoux was standing at a podium, telling a crowd of strangers to remember the cost of being lax on safety.
From Ontario, LeRoux was invited to St. John’s as keynote speaker for the final day of “Sharing the road to zero,” the sixth annual Safety Services Newfoundland and Labrador fall conference on health and safety.
She volunteers with the organization Threads of Life, helping families deal with injuries and death in the workplace, while offering her own family’s story as a cautionary tale.
LeRoux’s son, Michael, was 22 and working as a roofer at the time of his fatal accident.
“We were very close,” she told her audience at the Holiday Inn, many of whom work as safety officers at workplaces throughout Newfoundland and Labrador.
LeRoux’s son was a roofer for a year and a half before the accident and had been employed as a framer prior to that. He was trained in fall prevention and known to be safety conscious, his mother said.
Despite his experience, training and typical actions, he had no safety harness on to catch him on Jan. 19, 2006, in what LeRoux called “an entirely preventable workplace tragedy.”
Her son fell three storeys from a rooftop onto his head.
Two co-workers and a supervisor raced to help and were ultimately traumatized by the experience. At a coroner’s inquest three years later, LeRoux said, “one openly sobbed as he spoke of finding Michael ... and how he stayed with Michael, helplessly watching him bleed, while the other worker ran for help.”
She received a phone call at work.
“A very polite young officer told me my son was in an accident, that it was very serious ... The next 20 minutes, 30 minutes was a blur for me,” she said.
Michael was sent to Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, where his parents would ultimately meet him.
His younger sister was sent to stay with a neighbour and not told at first what was happening, while his older sister was away at school and would be told by an aunt when it was determined the prognosis was not good.
“She collapsed in the school’s office and I couldn’t even be there for her,” LeRoux said, explaining challenges and strains on the family immediately following the accident.
As for LeRoux, “there is nothing in this world that will prepare you for the first sight of your child unconscious and hooked up to life support,” she said.
“For six very long days we lived on a rollercoaster of hope and fear.”
LeRoux said her son was in a coma, his brain had been bruised and he had been bleeding internally. Nurses and doctors offered positive and negative outlooks day to day.
While she spoke at the safety conference, pictures of her son at different ages were displayed on a projection screen to her left.
There were pictures of him as a child on Santa’s lap, inside a speedboat holding up a fish, sitting before a birthday cake. From closer to the time of his death, there was a picture of him hanging out in a wooded area with friends.
Then, photos without people, of a home under construction and a bloody patch visible in the light snow surrounding the house.
LeRoux said there came a point where her family gathered and
were told her son’s organs were failing as an end result of his injuries. The doctors could keep his body alive, but he would not wake from his coma and there would be a regular fight to keep his heart pumping.
The decision was made to end the life support and, LeRoux said, they surrounded her son’s bed when he died shortly thereafter, on Jan. 25, 2006.
“It only took that once for him to slip and fall and that one time cost him his life,” she said.
In closing her presentation, LeRoux said her son’s story is just one among hundreds playing out across Canada every year. To date in 2012, she said, there have been 968 deaths as a result of workplace incidents.
She emphasized the need to see employees taking steps in the name of safety, including their using personal protective equipment and following safe practices.
“And, pardon my language, but ride their ass if you have to,” she said.