The families of the workers killed at the T2 Lab are now planning memorial services instead of holiday celebrations.
“With Christmas next week, we’re not shopping for gifts–we’ve got to go look at caskets,”
said a relative of Parrish Ashley, 36, one of the four men killed in the Wednesday explosion. Mr. Ashley and his deceased co-worker, Karey Henry, 35 were best friends, according to family members. They were:
“side by side in a break-room trailer about 1:30 pm when they were killed by a blast that witnesses described as like a bomb going off. ‘They were together throughout all of this. I know they attended church together. Ties run long and run thick and run deep.’”
Jacksonville’s WJXT is reporting that six local and federal agencies—OSHA, CSB, ATF, NTSB, the local sheriff and fire department—are investigating the fatal explosion. All of these entities have different legal authority and expertise. I’m wondering how the victims’ family members, the surviving T2 employees and the community will be kept apprised of the work of these different agencies and their findings.
Over the last year, I’ve come to know individuals from across the country who are family member victims of workplace fatalities. One of the frequent themes that emerges in our conversations is the alphabet soup of agencies that can be involved in an investigation of an on-the-job death. Depending on the nature of the accident, it’s not unusual for several investigative bodies to appear at the accident scene in order to determine whether their agency has a legal role and responsibility.
That’s the reason that a group of family member victims of workplace fatalities are asking for a “bill of rights” that includes
Providing family members with information on the role of federal, state and other officials in investigating the death.
With the disastrous and deadly explosion at the T2 Lab, some of the family members may want to know why, for example, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) is involved. ATF is:
“the principal law enforcement agency within the US Department of Justice dedicated to preventing terrorism, reducing violent crime, and protecting our Nation. The men and women of ATF perform the dual responsibilities of enforcing Federal criminal laws and regulating the firearms and explosives industries. We are committed to working directly, and through partnerships, to investigate and reduce crime involving firearms and explosives, acts of arson, and illegal trafficking of alcohol and tobacco products.” (emphasis added)
I suspect the ATF investigators will quickly try to determine if there is any evidence of terrorism or an act of arson, and if not, their involvement will end. For a family member, however, the process of trying to understand what happened is just beginning. She may want to know, for example, what evidence was collected by the ATF, including any interviews conducted, and whether that information was shared with the other investigating agencies, like the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) or OSHA? She may want to know how the different agencies coordinate their efforts, and whether one entity has primacy over the others. These are all reasonable questions, but I’ve not talked to a family member yet who thought there was an adequate way to get these questions answered.
Unfortunately for the victims’ family members, all of this preliminary work is conducted while they are in shock and grieving. By the time the funerals are over, an agency may have come and gone and the families didn’t even know that the agency was involved. I’ve heard from a number of family member victims of workplace fatalities that they only learned that X agency had been at the accident scene after digging through documents or making inquiries of primary investigators. Their reaction is always the same: why didn’t anybody tell me X agency was involved? That’s a natural reaction.
When a close loved one dies, they are gone physically–forever. You can’t change that, so you want to cling to what remains of them—like the investigation. Through the investigation, you might learn something about their last hours and minutes, which for many who are grieving is comforting. Therefore, when a family member hears that the X agency was at the scene, they want to know what the investigators saw? what they learned? what they know? and they feel assaulted or betrayed in a way when they learn, after the fact, that an agency was on the scene and they didn’t know about it. Maybe it is the sense that the accident scene is hallowed ground–and a place that most family member victims don’t get a chance to see close-up for themselves.
In our current system, 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. Instead, it’s a hodge-podge of workers’ comp, human resource officers, and government agencies, and it requires a family member to have dogged energy and clear thinking. Frankly, many individuals–whether a spouse, partner, parent, child or sibling—who are grieving their loved one do not have the emotional, physical and intellectual resources to deal with it in the weeks and months after the disaster. Grief is hard work in itself.
The T2 family member victims, including the brother of Karey Henry, who called him,
“a beautiful person, a good person”
and the sister-in-law of Parrish Ashley, who said
“if you were to see him off the street he’d give you a big smile and your spirit would click with his spirit,”
deserve an investigation process which is respectful, considerate, and forthcoming.
Celeste Monforton, MPH is a lecturer and research associate at the George Washington University School of Public Health, and the volunteer special-projects coordinator for United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities (USMWF).