by Jolene Gust

A man with light skin and dark curly hair and a beard stands in a white T-shirt.

Jolene’s dad Ken Wiebe

We all have dates of anniversaries that we will forever remember, and April 28th is one of mine. This is the Day of Mourning, a day we remember workers who lost their lives, were injured, or became ill due to a work-related tragedy. This is a day that I personally get to reflect upon as my dad, Ken Wiebe lost his life due to a work-related fatality.

This is also a yearly reminder to me that there is still work to be done around workplace safety.  My dad had won years of awards for being Injury Free and No Time Loss. But he paid the ultimate price when he lost his life after being electrocuted in a potash mine where he worked just outside of Saskatoon. He was just nine days short of celebrating his 38th birthday on May 23rd. This year, 2023, marked the 32nd year anniversary since my dad became a statistic.  At the time of his death, I was 16 years old.

On May 14, 1991 I was awoken by my mom asking me to come and lock the door behind her as my dad was taken to the hospital because there had been an incident at work and he got hurt. 

I was a bit confused as my dad had the day off from work. He had meetings scheduled that day and he and my mom were going to meet some friends for lunch. 

I walked down the hallway, watching my mom scramble grabbing her shoes and purse. I stopped when I was across from the front door where a man stood with safety glasses on and the lights on his hard hat still shining. 

I remember wondering if he even realized that they were still on. 

Jump forward: knocking on the door it is the friends that my parents were going for lunch with. I tell them that my mom is not home, that my dad was called into work to fix a high voltage piece of machinery and there was an accident, and he was hurt. They leave. 

Time jumps forward again. The next thing is Frank and Roxanne at the door again; this time the thing that I am focused on is the tears stuck in Roxanne’s eyelashes. Good friends of my parents were the lucky candidates to tell me that my dad had died.  My heart still hurts for them to have to carry that memory.  

My two sisters were in school at the time. I don’t know who told them. I also do not remember how we all got to the hospital. 

The next part of my story is what I think is most important because it is the raw reality of a workplace fatality.  

The hospital room is quiet, the temperature is cold, sterile feeling. I am given strict instructions not to move the white sheet covering my dad from his chest down.  When you are electrocuted, there is an entry and an exit point. For my dad as he had both hands in contact, the electricity crossed over his chest and the exit points were one of his hands and one of his feet. All the hair on his face was burnt off. He still had oxygen nasal pads in his nose. 

We were told that there was a coworker near my dad when the incident happened. He said he had seen my dad walk over to the machinery then walk back to his jeep to look at some prints then back to the machinery. What followed next was my dad calling out “oh No” followed by some bright lights and sparks. Remembering that first, this is electricity, so his coworker was watching helplessly as there was no way to ground the power. And second, he was working underground, so time was another factor not on his side. He needed to be loaded into an underground jeep-style vehicle, then wait for a shaft to be called and lowered to bring him back to surface level.  

There were many lives impacted that day: his co-worker who witnessed the incident, other co-workers who worked tirelessly to get to him and get him to surface and into the ambulance, the shaft operator, my dad’s friends who had to tell one of his daughters that he has died, and his family. He was a son, uncle, brother, a husband, and a father. 

When a workplace injury, disease or fatality happens the impact of that is a ripple effect that touches so many people.

It is my understanding that my dad’s locker has since been retired in memory. 

If I had a message of safety to others it would be this:

  • SLOW DOWN – be aware of your workplace surroundings. Do not get complacent – if you see a hazard, report it and take the measures needed to stay safe.
  • KNOW YOUR RIGHTS AS A WORKER. The right to know, the right to participate and the right to refuse work if you feel the job or task you’re doing is unsafe for yourself or others.
  • STAND UP FOR YOUR SAFETY. Take ownership. Safety is everyone’s responsibility. Don’t rely on someone else to act – this is your life, treat it with respect. Speak Up & Step Up. When I was looking for something to say or play for my dad’s funeral, I came across a song by Harry Stamper with the words “we just come to work here; we don’t come to die”. That is what I believed lit my safety spark and I knew from then that I was going to do something in the safety profession but wasn’t sure in what capacity.  

My story does not only include loss and grief, but it also comes with many blessings. One of those blessings is that I am fortunate to work for a leading safety organization, Energy Safety Canada (ESC). ESC has presented many opportunities for me to grow in health and safety including going to the University of Calgary – Continuing Education and taking Occupational Health and Safety. I am currently completing my second certificate in the program.

Another blessing is that I was invited to attend a virtual conference a couple of years ago held by Women in Occupational Health & Safety Society (WOHSS) and that is where I was introduced to Threads of Life. I remember thinking ‘WOW, where was this organization when I needed them?’ To answer that, it is better late than never as the grieving process gets easier over time, but it never fully goes away. I soon followed up to participate in the annual fundraiser Steps for Life. This year marked my third year participating in the walk and I am proud to say that Energy Safety Canada was one of this year’s sponsors!

I am also honoured to share that I was a selected recipient in 2022 to receive the Threads of Life Scholarship funded by the Board of Canadian Registered Safety Professionals (BCRSP).

I believe in the core of who I am that every man and woman deserves to go home to their loved ones at the end of their workday and as long as there are workplace incidents, then I will continue to be an advocate for health and safety. The day my dad lost his life, I found my voice.