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Carbonear woman shares story of brother's workplace death to raise awareness for National Safety Month

Melissa O'Keefe, left, says her older brother Sean O'Keefe was very caring and practically helped raise her as they grew up in Carbonear. Sean was killed in a workplace accident in 2005.
Melissa O'Keefe, left, says her older brother Sean O'Keefe was very caring and practically helped raise her as they grew up in Carbonear. Sean was killed in a workplace accident in 2005. - Contributed

Sean O'Keefe died in Alberta 14 years ago

CARBONEAR, N.L. —

It's still difficult for Melissa O'Keefe to think about what her family lost when her older brother Sean was killed in a workplace accident 14 years ago.

Born five years apart, Melissa says the pair practically raised each other growing up in Carbonear.

Sean O'Keefe
Sean O'Keefe

"He was strong physically and emotionally — he was like a backbone," Melissa told The Compass during a recent chat at a local coffee shop in her hometown. "He was very caring, foolish ... He was a good person."

Perhaps the hardest thing for Melissa to consider when it comes to her bother not being around is the person he didn't get a chance to meet. Melissa has a 12-year-old son who can only know his uncle through pictures and the words of those who knew Sean.

"Horrible – it's one of the worst things," she said just before taking a moment to fight back tears. "Definitely the worst thing for sure, hands down."

The story of what happened to Sean O'Keefe ties together with the message behind National Safety Month, a campaign the National Safety Council promotes each June to eliminate preventable deaths at work, in homes and communities, and on the road.

Last month, Melissa spoke about her brother for the first time in a classroom setting, giving a presentation to students taking an occupational safety course at her former high school, Carbonear Collegiate. Melissa, who is also a volunteer firefighter in Carbonear, took the same course when she was still a student.

What happened

Sean was a welder who worked exclusively in Newfoundland and Labrador for the first two years of his career before accepting a job with Cassidy Engineering, a metal fabrication company based in Nisku, Alberta. On April 30, 2005, two sections of heavy structural steel frames that were on a fork lift landed on Sean, each of them weighing approximately 680 kilograms. He was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident. A subsequent Workplace Health and Safety investigation determined no attempt was made to secure the two sections of heavy structural steel before they were lowered to the floor by the forklift. The shop foreman was operating the forklift and had directed Sean to offload the steel.

Sadly, his death fell two days after the National Day of Mourning for workers killed or injured on job sites.

Melissa O'Keefe recently discussed her brother's death during a presentation to an occupational safety class at her former high school.
Melissa O'Keefe recently discussed her brother's death during a presentation to an occupational safety class at her former high school.

Melissa was working a shift at a local bar in Carbonear when she first learned about the incident. It wasn't until she was brought home that her father Tony told her Sean was dead. Her mother Carole was speechless, according to Melissa, who threw up after her father broke the news to her.

"It's something I won't forget. It's to the point now where if I'm in a corner, I don't like being in the corner. I don't like being hid away. I've always got to have an exit. It's messed with me for sure."

In 2008, the employer entered a guilty plea for failing to ensure the health of an employee. The company was fined $275,000 and a plaque honouring Sean was erected at Manufacturers’ Health and Safety Association's petrochemical training centre in Balzac, Alta.

Speaking out

When Melissa took the occupational health and safety class, she admits it was not a course she took seriously.

"I passed with flying colours, but I didn't care about it," said Melissa, who now believes it should be a mandatory class for high school students, given it can save lives. "I didn't think in a million years that not even two years later, I was going to be part of a statistic that we spoke about almost every day."

She was pleased to be able to speak to the class last month and found her presentation was well received. Melissa hoped putting a human voice to what's at stake when it comes to workplace safety might reach students at a different level. She remembers herself how much of a difference that sort of connection made in school, thinking back to when a person living with AIDS gave a presentation to her class.

"I felt if I could take one person and make them realize what they could lose," she said. "It's not about if it even happens to you. It's helping someone be a bit safer at work."

editor@cbncompass.ca

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