Friday, May 31, 2013

Dancing on workplace graves isn't journalism. It's revolting.

So. Workplace safety.

First, the headline-chasing. I am a click-whore with the best of them, but I draw the line at advertisers paying to have people click on a death if it's not directly relevant to what I write about. A road accident that happened to involve a kid working for an NBN contractor?

Even with the proud red-top tabloidism of The Register as my masthead-of-employment, I won't give the world the headline “NBN-related death”. Not ever.

In trying to explain my position on Twitter, I called on my father's record, which was “nobody died on my sites”.

He was a civil engineer. Because he was a WW2 veteran (Australian Navy, seconded to the Royal Navy), he was also a good imitation of insane much of the time, until he got Alzheimer's Diseas, and then he no longer imitated it because he was.

From the 1950s to the early 1970s, his specialty was as a construction engineer, managing projects from Mount Isa's first power station to (at his peak) the last half of the construction of Australia Square. Then he spent some time on shopping centres (Bankstown Square, Carlingford Square and Penrith Plaza) before home construction for Petit & Sevitt, and retiring from the construction industry because his friends kept dying young from the pressure.

In that career, his proudest boast was that people didn't die working for him. That is: from power stations to skyscrapers to project homes, nobody died on his sites.

I guess it came from WW2, when people died all the time, always too many, all of them people. His ship, the HMS Quiberon, once entered Sydney Harbour with a gaping hole in its bows from a Japanese kamikaze that almost hit, and he always wondered about the pilot. He even felt bad about chasing an ASDIC (the predecessor to Sonar, Anti-Submarine Detection, Interdiction and Combat) signal around the Pacific Ocean for two days so his ship could depth-bomb a whale.

He didn't like deaths, and was fanatical about protecting workers on his sites.

That wasn't always popular. The then-“union boss” and now revered instigator of green-bans, Jack Mundy, once threatened to pull a strike because Dad sacked labourers for refusing to wear hard-hats on site. What changed Mundy's mind was Dad's site record: “nobody has ever died when I was in charge. Pull a strike. I'd rather that than a dead worker.” Mundy, apparently, changed his mind.

And that record remained in place. On one site, Oxford Square, the most serious injury was to Dad: a swinging joist in a crane struck him on his (hard-hat protected) head. His head was fine, but he was on a ladder, so the impact broke his ankle. He also broke a rib, once, but that was his own work: he decided to sit on the edge of a desk to take a phone call, and missed.

In case all this sounds a bit rose-coloured: we never got on, Dad and I.

When I was little, he wasn't there. When I was a teen, we were fighting – my disappointing performance at any kind of sport probably didn't help. And in my twenties, his brain was growing the holes of Alzheimer's disease, and he was fading.

At best, there were a couple of weeks in my whole life when Dad and I actually liked each other. But I can see his big accomplishment – “nobody died” – for what it is, something to be proud of.

And I have two direct pieces of evidence for his record, that I can put my hands on: marble coffee tables, one in my home, the other in my brother's. They were gifts from a loud Italian contractor, delivered in person to our suburban home in West Pennant Hills when I was a child, “because you take care of my people!”

From my point of view, media dancing on a workplace grave for a political point is absolutely loathsome. I detest every workplace death, and will not exploit it for clicks – and I'm probably the greatest click-whore in the Australian tech press.

A line has to be drawn somewhere.

1 comment:

Kiri said...

Hi Richard. I'm just wondering if you're the Richard I knew from my teens? (This is Milena Skalicky).