“Yes, it’s a tragedy when someone goes to work and never comes home but thousands more, like my father, come home to die.” Sheryl Dell’s father lost his battle with mesothelioma in February after recovering from a series of injuries, including a year of blindness, sustained over his career as an industrial chemist. On World Day for Safety and Health at Work, Sheryl Dell and the Safety Institute of Australia Victoria Division are calling for recognition of the hidden workplace death toll.
SIA Victoria President Phillip Kamay says Australia’s official fatality statistics, between 200 and 300 per year, are widely thought to be just the tip of the iceberg.
“The most recent national figures estimate the real toll is more than 2000,” he said. “The problem is that many occupational diseases, like cancers, can take decades to develop and their connection with work is often difficult to prove in court.”
For Sheryl Dell and her father, that statistical anomaly had devastating consequences.
“My father had to fight disbelief as well as the disease,” she said. “In the end, he joined a class action and got a small payout that helped him pay for healthcare. It wasn’t about money though. What we really wanted was to hear someone say ‘I’m sorry’.”
It was a double injustice for Sheryll Dell. Long before losing her father to the deadly workplace cancer, her family had been scarred by the year of blindness that followed a chemical splash.
“We had to tip-toe around him,” she said. “We never had friends to visit because it was too hard to explain why there was this angry man sitting alone in the dark,” she said.
“He found it very difficult to deal with and it ground my mother down. She never was the same happy-go-lucky person ever again, it was a real loss of innocence. I had only just begun to appreciate him and discover how much we could share when I lost him forever.”
Her father’s suffering and the toll it took on her family inspired Sheryll Dell’s own career choice as an occupational health and safety professional. When corporate high fliers, including Ziggy Switkowski and ANZ Chairman Jerry Ellis, address the Safety In Action Conference tomorrow, Ms Dell will be listening and hoping for signs of change.
“Around 140,000 Australian workers are injured so badly each year that they need to take at least a week off work,” she said. “My father’s blindness was a dark time for all of us. Injury management has come a long way but thousands of families suffering in this way every week is unacceptable.”
The Safety In Action Conference, organised by Australian Exhibitions & Conferences (AEC), was held at the Melbourne Convention Centre, while the concurrently held Safety In Action trade show was at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre. This conference is sponsored by WorkSafe Victoria and hosted by the Safety Institute of Australia (Victoria Division).