By IAN WILSON
Screaming into the abyss can produce some interesting responses. Sometimes you hear an echo. At times the silence is deafening. But if you wait long enough, you just might hear it.
When I began working for the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund (JPMF) some 13 years ago, I knew little about who Const. John Petropoulos was and even less about how the Memorial Fund worked.
But I was excited about working for a non-profit organization and promoting positive change in the world.
My work taught me about some of the hazards facing first responders (hint: they are often more mundane than TV or the movies would have you believe). I also learned about the dangers that can await those whose only transgression is going to work.
What struck me most about serious workplace incidents that left people severely injured or dead was how similar they were to motor vehicle collisions. These tragic events happen with enough regularity that we see them on the news periodically or we hear about someone we know being impacted by them. And then they fade away. We furrow our brows, shake our heads and discuss the sadness of such loss. Then we move on.
We worry about terrorist attacks, venomous snakes and tornadoes hunting us down, but it is those boring things – like getting in our car and going to work each day – that are far more likely to prove deadly. The hazards hide in plain sight. We know about them and we sort of care about them, but we accept them.
For two decades, the JPMF has worked hard to raise awareness about occupational health and safety. We want people to know who John Petropoulos was, how and why he died, and why his death matters. We have created public service announcements (PSAs) that highlight workplace safety issues impacting first responders. These have been viewed online and broadcast on TV over two millions times.
We have also used our website and our social media platforms as a bullhorn. We want people to listen, to care and to act.
We have reached thousands of Canadians with safety presentations at conferences, seminars and corporate events.
John’s death, like so many other workplace fatalities, was not an accident. It was preventable. In fact, it was infuriatingly easy to prevent. A sign could have done it. A safety railing definitely would have saved his life.
There have been times, several occasions, when we’ve reached people. We got through. The enormity of John’s loss resonated. Those people saw the tragedy for how needless it was. They pledged to look around their workplace and make changes. Never again, they said. Some of them came through – they followed up with us to let us know about their new safety protocols and the hazards they eliminated.
“We’re saving lives!” I thought. Those were the good days.
There have been days, too, where the bullhorn didn’t seem to work – days where eyes that had watched our safety videos were glazed over rather than filled with caring tears.
There have been days where people have been downright hostile to our safety messages. The email inbox has included vitriol for first responders, or indiscernible ravings.
“We’re screaming into the abyss,” I thought. Those were not good days.
How do you make people care? Why don’t they care more? We can do things better. We should expect better for people who work so hard for us. We should make conditions safer … for everyone. One death, is one too many.
It was easy to get discouraged after seeing the workplace fatality statistics each year. It has also been frustrating to know that so much of our work is immeasurable – they don’t keep records on things that don’t happen. How many workplace fatalities have been prevented? How many workers were able to elude death as a result of our efforts? We’ll never know.
When you get in the habit of screaming into the abyss, you can get lost in the vastness of it. It can seem pretty dark and lonely and quiet. It’s a shame really, because if you listen with the right kind of ears, you’ll hear it. It wasn’t an echo, after all. It’s other voices. They heard you.
Ian Wilson began working for the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund in 2007. He is stepping down as Managing Director on May 28, 2020 to spend more time with his family.