Tyler Kahle, 19, (photo) and Craig Bagley, 27 (photo) were killed four months ago at the NovaGold Resources’ Rock Creek mine near Nome, Alaska.  MSHA is completing its investigation; so far, all the Kahle family has been told is that the lift basket was 90 feet off the ground and “it tipped over.”  Sadly, what the Kahle family has learned, is that mothers, fathers and other family-member victims of workplace fatalities have few if any rights, the exclusive liability provision of state workers’ compensation laws is a cruel joke, and families are excluded from the fatality investigation process. 

This harsh reality compelled a group of families to develop a “Family Bill of Rights” to provide fundamental rights to loved ones left behind by workplace fatalities.

The “Family Bill of Rights” outlines ten simple rights for family-member victims of work-related deaths, including:

  • Providing family members with information on the role of federal, state and other officials in investigating the death.

When a loved one dies on-the-job, family members don’t know where to go for answers.  The company tells them one thing, the workers’ compensation carrier something else, and then there’s OSHA, MSHA and sometimes a separate State investigation agency.  There is not a trusted  single, reliable source for family members to receive the information they need to deal legally and emotionally with their loved one’s death.

On average, about 16 workers died on the job each and every day.  That’s 16 families each and every day shocked by a workplace fatality.

  • Notifying family members of all meetings, hearings and other communication between the investigators and the employer (and their lawyers and advisors), and allowing family members to participate in such events.

The Kahle family knows this first-hand.  

“At the time of the accident, the equipment manufacturer JLG, the contractor Alaska Mechanical Inc., Alaska Gold Company and MSHA all were privy to the details of the accident.  Representatives of the victims were not invited to have representation there and we were led to believe that MSHA would be acting with our best interest; how is holding the info close to their belts in our best interest?”

  • Allowing family members the right to view all physical evidence gathered as part of the accident investigation, and ensuring that the evidence is secured from employer tampering.

Shawn Boone, 33, was severly burned in an explosion and fire at the Hayes Lemmerz plant in Huntington, Indiana.  He died a few days later.  In the middle of his family’s tragedy, his sister Tammy Miser writes how another awful situation was taking place:

The company “was allowed to start the clean-up process simply because Shawn was not yet dead. The immediate clean-up not only contaminated the investigation site, but also deprived our family and his coworkers the oppportunity to begin their healing by visiting the site of the incident.”

  • Family members should have access to all documents gathered and produced as part of the accident investigation, including reports prepared by first-responders, and state and federal officials.  Information mentioning the deceased family member’s name and condition should not be redacted from documents provided to family members.  All fees related to the production of documents should be waived for family members.

Donald Smith, 22, (photo) was electrocuted in March 2005 while working at a chicken processing plant. His father has tried all avenues to oatain documents related to his son’s death, but has encountered endless obstacles.

“‘…it is obvious that current laws favor corporate America.’ The family has been denied access to documents concerning negotiations between OSHA and his son’s company, despite formal and properly filed requests.  They wish that OSHA’s final investigation report contained more information — information that would answer the questions of grieving families and perhaps, save the lives of another worker.  …OSHA’s reports do not include any of the information gleaned from interviews that could directly pinpoint an individual or company policy responsible for the workplace fatality.  The process needs to give families “the knowledge they need to fully grieve for their loved one — knowledge about the fatality incident, and knowledge about the investigation process.”

  • Family members must be compensated for the time and expense incurred because of a work-related fatality and serious injury.  In cases where the deceased or seriously injured worker has no spouse or dependent children, a parent of the worker should be compensated for funeral cost, travel, medical expenses, and lost wages.

Christopher Doughty, 18, (photo) was killed on a construction site near San Antonio, Texas in February 2007 when his jacket was pulled into an auger–an auger without an automatic emergency shutoff.  His parents incurred a large financial expense for their son’s funeral, and the State’s workers’ compensation law denies financial assistance for the loss of a child.  His parents report:

“Funeral costs amounted to more than $20,000.  They received only $6,000 from workers’ compensation.  They were able to pay the additional expense from their savings, but they worry that some parents may be forced into dire financial straits without proper compensation for their loss.”

The young worker’s mother, was hospitalized and prescribed medications to cope with the loss of her son, leaving her with medical bills in the thousands of dollars.  These costs of a workplace fatality are never calculated in OSHA’s or MSHA’s economic analyses to justifying more protective safety and health regulations.

“‘It is sickening.  We were robbed of our son and our future.  He did not have time to be a dad or husband,’ his mother Lorraine explained.  Kenneth, is father, echoes similar sentiments, and his thoughts also turn to those families who may not have the financial means to pay for their son’s or daughter’s funeral. ‘While no amount of money can ever bring back a child, families deserve to be compensated for their loss in order to properly say goodbye to their loved one.  Indeed, it should be a right!'”

Read the full “Family Bill of Rights” and more about family member victims of workplace fatalities at United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities (USMWF).

Celeste Monforton, MPH is with SKAPP at the George Washington University School of Public Health, and special projects coordinator for USMWF.