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Safety's Man With a Mission

Ron Hayes uses The FIGHT Project to battle for safer workplaces and to help grieving families hold together.

Pat Darling didn't know where to turn when her husband, Dennis, died instantly Sept. 6, 1997, after he fell 8 feet off a crane. Darling wanted to know why her 58-year-old husband, a super-heavy haul driver, was killed in a freak accident after he drove to Iowa to pick up a load.

There were so many questions, but few answers. "When my husband passed away, I couldn't get any information," said Darling, who lives in Casper, Wyo. "If you've never gone through this, you don't know what it's like to wait by the phone for answers."

Ron Hayes of Fairhope, Ala., knows exactly what Darling has been going through. Hayes faced the same tragedy seven years ago when his 19-year-old son, Patrick, was killed after he was buried under tons of corn in a grain bin and suffocated.

Hayes, 51, wanted to know how the accident happened, why Pat was allowed to go into the grain bin and push corn stuck on side walls into the middle, and what was going to be done to prevent a similar accident. He did not like what he wasn't finding out from the company his son worked for or from OSHA during its investigation.

"I found that there was this huge black hole," he said. "There was no one person or no one path that someone could follow. There needed to be someone there to help us, and there was nobody."

Hayes decided to become that "somebody" and help himself. He would leave no stone unturned in his search for answers, which was his way of working through the grieving process.

"I was making hundreds of phone calls all over the country. I was trying to get my hands on every book I could read, not just about grain bins, but on deaths in the workplace," he said.

Hayes did not want other families to struggle the way he did to find out information following a workplace accident. So he left his job as an X-ray technician in 1996 to form The FIGHT Project, which stands for Families In Grief Hold Together. The organization was started for two reasons: to remember his son and to help others.

One of those he has helped is Darling. When she had nowhere to turn and needed someone who understood what she was going through, officials with Iowa OSHA gave her Hayes' telephone number.

At first, Darling did not want to call Hayes because she wondered how this stranger could help her. Finally, she made the call.

"You're life stops and stands still. You cannot move forward because there's nothing pulling you," she said. "Then along comes Ron Hayes, who says, 'I'll be there for you.' Here's a man, who in the middle of a crisis of losing his son, has taken up a flag for those who have lost a loved one and have no place to go. He's taken time out of his life to help other people. You don't find people like that. He's a hero."

Personal Tragedy

Hayes, a 2000 Champion of Safety contest winner, can still vividly recall seeing his son for the first time in the morgue when he was killed Oct. 22, 1993. "Every time I close my eyes, I see it -- the excruciating pain on that boy's face, two dried tears going down his cheeks and his mouth and nose full of corn dust."

That image led Hayes on a quest to find answers to the many questions that face a father when his son dies unexpectedly. He wanted to find out all he could about grain bins and OSHA regulations. He needed to know how long it took for his son to die.

Slowly, Hayes began to find answers. It took a year and a half to determine that it probably took 90 seconds for his son to suffocate due to corn compacting so fast that he could not breathe in oxygen. He learned that nearly 100 deaths a year occur in grain bins, grain facilities and silos. Most of all, he learned that his son did not have to die.

Hayes determined there was more that the company, Showell Farms, should have done to prevent the accident. OSHA proposed a fine of $530,000 but reduced it to $42,000, eliminated all willful citations and opted not to seek criminal prosecution. Hayes was furious that his son's life meant so little to the company and OSHA.

Then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich and then-OSHA Administrator Joseph Dear met Hayes and his wife, Dot, in 1995 and apologized for errors made as a result of the investigation after their son's death. In 1996, OSHA revised its grain handling facilities standard, 29 CFR 1910.272, to ensure greater protection for workers against hazards of being engulfed by grain or being entrapped when mechanical equipment is used to move the grain.

"The tragic death of this young man and his father's untiring efforts to make sense out of that senseless death led to what we are doing today," Reich said March 7, 1996. "We hope that these changes will avert such tragedies in the future."

Hayes has been able to influence many others in Washington, D.C., and across the country, including Lisa Cullen, CIH, an industrial hygiene consultant in Reamstown, Pa. Cullen decided to volunteer as a technical resource for The FIGHT Project, but only after meeting Hayes.

"I learned that Ron Hayes is exactly what he appears to be. He has no hidden agendas, no political goals or financial ties influencing him. He simply wants to prevent workers from dying," Cullen said. "He saw an enormous need and decided to fill it, and he manages to do so with good humor, persistence and faith."

Helping Others

Although Hayes looks like Santa Claus and plays the part for children each Christmas, he does not come bearing gifts for grieving families. "I just peddle hope," he will tell you. "We (he and Dot) are not doctors or lawyers. We're just a shoulder to lean on."

To date, Hayes and his wife have provided that shoulder to more than 420 families in 45 states. Grieving family members have included fathers, mothers, siblings and spouses like Darling.

"Ron was there for me. I would call him at night, and he would get out of bed and talk to me for two hours," she said. "I would have never made it without Ron. There were times when I was so low, a rattle snake couldn't get under me." Then she would call Hayes, who would offer her a word of encouragement and lift her spirits.

One thing that Hayes learned quickly when his son died is that friends will desert you because they do not know how to help you through your grief. He wants to be there to help other families who have had friends back away during their time of need. "You're really alone," he said.

Why is Hayes willing to relive his tragedy every time another family calls seeking help and encouragement? Because he wants to help families get through the pain and grief to "start living on the other side." "Families are afraid their loved one will be forgotten and that he or she died in vain," he said.

The FIGHT Project provides families with much more than sympathy. Hayes helps them through the maze of dealing with government agencies, OSHA regulations, the Freedom of Information Act and Congress.

Though Hayes' outreach to other families has grown, he knew he could not reach every family in need of his services. While he does not accept money from these families, he asks them to use their experiences in dealing with a loss and share that experience with others as he has done.

"I'll do this until the day I die," he said, "and will have enough people in place to continue on when I'm gone."

Mr. Hayes Goes to Washington

Hayes has stretched his efforts beyond helping grieving families. His influence on OSHA, Congress and workplace safety has been noticed across the country. The walls of his small office in his home are lined with letters from congressmen and articles in local and national newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times and Time magazine. Twice he was featured on the television news program "Dateline."

Hayes does not revel in the attention he has received and wants that attention focused on workplace safety. To that end, he works tirelessly to get congressional bills introduced and OSHA policy changed.

The endless hours Hayes put into learning about OSHA regulations has made him somewhat of a "lay person expert" on workplace safety. In fact, he has been called on to testify before Congress. Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., said that Hayes is able to capture the attention of Washington, D.C., because of his compassionate, kind, dedicated and, most important, persistent demeanor.

"I am not surprised that Ron Hayes has had a substantial impact on worker safety," said Enzi, chairman of the Senate subcommittee with oversight responsibility of OSHA. "As anyone who has met him can tell you, he is an exceptional person. His expansive knowledge about OSHA and real-world experience makes people listen when he comments on issues of occupational safety and health."

In addition to his efforts to change the grain handling facilities standard, Hayes has persuaded OSHA to:

  • Update and expand from one page to five pages its fatality letter, which bereaved families receive from the agency to explain the investigation process;
  • Appoint a family liaison to work with grieving families; and
  • Develop and provide sensitivity classes to federal OSHA inspectors and inspectors in several state-plan states.

OSHA Administrator Charles Jeffress commends Hayes for sharing knowledge and understanding he gained from his personal tragedy. "His sympathy and advice are well-received and are helpful to others," Jeffress said. "His commitment to supporting families and his dedication to preventing future occupational deaths has been unswerving."

In April 1999, OSHA named Art DeCoursey as a special liaison to help victims and their families get information from the agency. DeCoursey provides second-tier assistance beyond that provided by area and regional offices. At the time, Hayes called it "a new beginning for OSHA."

Hayes' work with OSHA inspectors has taken up more of his time in the past couple of years. He developed the sensitivity class to "give OSHA a heart" while it conducts investigations. The agency taped his class and put copies in all 67 federal OSHA offices. Training also is being conducted in North Carolina, Washington, Oregon, California, Wyoming and Iowa.

Hayes will not accept money from unions, corporations or industry trade groups, nor does he collect a fee for conducting training courses. He relies on donations from individuals and income from his part-time work in construction.

Instead of flying across the country to teach a class or testify in Congress, Hayes chooses to drive to reduce costs. He will drive all night to Washington and testify or meet with congressmen the next day. In the past year and a half, he has put 54,000 miles on his car.

Whether testifying on Capitol Hill or teaching a class to a group of OSHA investigators in some distant state, Hayes wants to ensure that the names of deceased workers are not forgotten.

Hayes sees more than statistics when he reads OSHA fatality reports. "I see this father wishing he could take his son to a ball game or a daughter wishing her dad was there to go on a family camping trip. I see that pain, which is what we've had. The pain and sorrow is so deep."

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