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Safeguard Magazine

It’s academic—No ordinary bereavement

Family members of people killed at work have been found to suffer significant mental health issues in the years that follow, reports LYNDA MATTHEWS.

The announcement earlier this year of a Federal Inquiry into Industrial Deaths in Australia brings a much needed and welcomed examination of the framework surrounding the prevention, investigation and prosecution of industrial deaths.

Without doubt there are many stakeholders who have an interest in the legislation that underpins these processes, but none more than the families of the workers who have died at work. They have valuable contributions to make about the formal events and processes they need to navigate following the death and the challenges they face in getting justice.

We know this because over the past eight years our research has given “voice” to families’ experiences of workplace tragedies. With initial support from the CFMEU, and later by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant, we interviewed 62 family members; conducted an online survey for families and received 212 responses; and interviewed 48 representatives of institutions in Australia that deal with workplace death, including regulators, unions, employers, police, coronial officers, and family support services.

We found that families place great value on the formal investigations and prosecutorial activities that follow the death because they provide an opportunity to gain information about the context of the incident and what and who are responsible for the death. There is a strong desire that measures will be taken to ensure hazards are addressed so that something positive comes from the tragedy and other families do not have to experience the same grief.

However, long term exposure to regulatory processes can complicate the bereavement process for families and contribute to enduring mental health consequences.

MENTAL HEALTH IMPACT

Sudden deaths in the workplace tend to be violent and traumatic. Not surprisingly, a significant proportion of family participants reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (55%), depressive disorder (45%), and prolonged grief disorder (45%) that met the clinical cut-offs for probable clinical conditions at the time they were surveyed – an average of seven years after the death.

More than 70% of respondents reported increased levels of guilt, fear, anxiety, mood swings, and feelings of isolation since the death. Suicidal ideation was reported by some family members. Participants with children (89%) told us that their children had fears about separation (40%), increased angry outbursts (42%), and ongoing concerns about the safety of other family members (47%).

Families tended to put their bereavement on hold because they needed to be vigilant for opportunities to seek justice for the untimely death. They were frustrated by the wait times, timelines, and delays that they faced in getting information, which could be up to eight years. The impact of this lengthy process increased the intensity (71%) and duration (75%) of families’ grief reactions and disrupted their ability to adapt to life without their loved one (70%).

While some measures have been tried, more attention must be given to coordinating the timing of processes, making sure deaths are considered by coroners, and ensuring families are kept informed and, where possible and appropriate, given the opportunity to provide input.

FAILURES IN FORMAL RESPONSES

Family members saw failures in formal post-death responses – regarding support, information, procedures, and outcomes – as a significant contributor to their poor mental health. Dissatisfaction with procedural justice, inability to get satisfactory information about how and why the death occurred, and inadequate support through the formalities were associated with increased likelihood of having a mental health condition.

Further, families of self-employed workers denied workers’ compensation carried an additional financial burden, compounding the stress and strain of their bereavement.

LIFE IRREVOCABLY CHANGED

In sum, leaving aside the much larger toll of deaths from work-related disease, every year too many workers are added to the death toll from traumatic injury at work. For family members life is often changed irrevocably; they live with grief as an unresolved ache, with ongoing mental health concerns, financial stress and strain, and dramatically changed life circumstances. The toll is cumulative.

This study shows that the mental health consequences for families are profound and long term. This is far from being a new problem, but what is particularly disturbing is that it has received limited attention from researchers and policy makers.

Hopefully, the Federal Inquiry into Industrial Deaths in Australia will be the vehicle that drives the much-needed changes to legislation.

Lynda Matthews is a member of the Work and Health Research Team in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Sydney.

This research was undertaken with her colleague Philip Bohle, and with Michael Quinlan from the School of Management at the University of New South Wales.

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