Saturday 24 June 2017

'Kieron lying with half his head missing. . . that's the monster'

Graham Clifford

For over seven years, Jennifer Deeney has worked to suppress anger and share knowledge. But on hearing a recent speech by British Prime Minister David Cameron she confesses she was so angry that she was "fit to be tied".

The 37-year-old, from Straide in Mayo, listened to Mr Cameron's words with tears filling her eyes. In 2004, she lost her husband Kieron just 13 weeks after their fairytale wedding.

He died after falling down a lift shaft on a construction site in Canary Wharf and so the prime minister's speech criticising the "monster" of the health and safety culture left Kieron's widow numb.

Mr Cameron said British business was hampered by too much red tape and implied that to get the country moving again a softer approach had to be taken toward health and safety.

Jennifer, who works as a matron on a neonatal intensive care unit in the Royal London hospital, has written to Downing Street to voice her deep concern over the messages the prime minister is giving out.

"It's beyond reckless. This is a powerful man who people listen to and he hasn't thought about what he's saying. You have a health and safety culture and a compensation culture and he's entangling the two and they're clearly two very different things," said Jennifer.

And using terms to refer to health and safety such as 'monster' and 'albatross' were seen as particularly insensitive according to Jennifer.

She said: "For me, and the guys who suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome after Kieron died, the albatross isn't the health and safety laws, the albatross is the picture of Kieron lying with half his head missing on a lift shaft in Canary Wharf dying. It's the picture of him falling that wakes me up screaming, that's the albatross, that's the monster. The monster can't be the thing that minds you and protects you."

Jennifer and Kieron first set eyes on each other in Dicey Riley's nightclub in Neasden in 1997. At the time, the young nurse was 23 and she presumed Kieron, from Rathmullen in Donegal, was of a similar vintage but she was wrong.

Jennifer explains, "It turns out he was 18 at the time. I only found out several years on when he asked me what I was getting him for his 21st!"

Seven years later, on May 8, 2004, the young couple celebrated their wedding in Jennifer's local church in Mayo in front of 200 guests and afterwards went on the honeymoon of a lifetime to Thailand.

Weeks later, while working on a building site in Canary Wharf, Kieron fell through a rotten board placed above a lift shaft. He fell 30ft to the ground below and died on impact.

Several months earlier, he had mourned the death of a fellow Irish colleague but told his beloved Jennifer "it will never happen to me". Carpenter Patsy O'Sullivan died after falling 100ft when scaffolding collapsed at Wembley Stadium. The 54-year-old and father of two from Macroom was pronounced dead at the scene.

Jennifer went from new bride to widow in a matter of weeks and as she explains now the scenario is all too common across Britain. She told me: "People accept it (construction deaths) as the norm and to me that's not good enough."

While the annual death rate continues to fall it's not too long ago since at least 70 men a year were being killed on British construction sites, many of those Irish.

"If you had 70 politicians or 70 doctors or 70 nurses dying at work every year -- could you imagine the public reaction?" says Jennifer.

"When a soldier says goodbye to his loved ones before going on a mission he often will make it a final goodbye just in case, but actually a construction worker is probably more likely to die than a soldier," she added.

A year after Kieron's death, Jennifer joined the Health and Safety Executive as an inspector, so keen was she to understand the importance of what they do. She says: "I feel I've seen health and safety from both sides, so I know it from a personal perspective but I also understand it from a legal and company perspective."

After 15 months, she returned to her role in nursing.

Today, she juggles her work life as a matron with her passion -- telling Kieron's story to workers across Britain to help them stay safe. In recent months, Jennifer has been down at the Olympic site in Stratford speaking to construction crews there and fundraises for the Lighthouse club charity which assists construction workers and their families in hard times.

A month on from sending her letter and still Jennifer is waiting on a reply from Mr Cameron. Whether he knows it or not, the prime minister has unearthed a formidable adversary on this topic and to quote one of his heroes from the past: "the woman is not for turning".

Irish Independent

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