prayingIt’s a hot July evening, 2011. The gas well site in western Pennsylvania is a dangerous combination of humid, damp conditions, high-voltage electricity, and improper equipment.

Around 2:30 a.m., 20-year-old Kerry Edward Duncan is sent to refuel the generator, so the three-man crew dismantling the drilling rig could see to finish their work. Kerry is covered in sweat. When he touches the pump to get the fuel going, he is jolted by a fatal shock.

Kerry never knew what happened. An untrained worker wired the switch up wrong. It was the wrong pump, the wrong extension cord with no ground prong. Kerry was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Lack of resolve

Unfortunately these types of death happen all the time, everyday, way more than you might think.


Every case is different, but in more than 20 years of working with families of kin killed while on the job I can point to indifference and lack of safety training.

It is not premeditated murder.

It’s lack of resolve. Lack of planning. Lack of caring. To the grieving families, it can feel like murder.

Ninety-nine percent of these fatalities are preventable. These are not accidents, like people think of accidents – random events where nothing could have been done. They are what I call “Planned Disasters.” No, they are not thought-out in advance chain of events. But they are disasters waiting to happen – some day or some night – due to a lack of understanding about safety measures and lack of knowing what hazards exist in situations people are walking into.

I do not want to call them “accidents.” All the pain and grief could be prevented if companies educated, trained and cared for their employees.

Yes, OSHA is supposed to make companies safe. But OSHA cannot be on every work site. In Kerry’s case, OSHA cited Kerry’s employer, Target Drilling, Inc., for 16 safety violations, including 14 serious violations for things like failure to properly ground electrical systems and not ensuring a diesel fuel pump was adequate for wet locations. OSHA fined Target Drilling $53,200; after an appeal the fines were reduced to $39,000.

Improvements, yes, but not enough

Yes, many companies do a great job on safety and health. I’ve seen that firsthand across the country. But honestly, I haven’t seen enough improvement. We need more of a national dialog about young worker safety. We need OSHA, the National Safety Council, the American Society of Safety Engineers, and the American Industrial Hygiene Association more involved. Without a national spotlight on youth safety we will continue to see devastating deaths.

As always the family is devastated. Kerry’s mother Tammy not only lost her child but also she says her best friend. She keeps hoping Kerry will come busting through the door, and this nightmare will be over. Kerry’s father, Kerry G. Duncan, tries to find a way to handle the lost and horror, but cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel. Kerry’s sister, with all the emotions of losing her brother, and her family torn apart, tries to cope with her own feeling and fights back the tears when she starts talking about him.

Kerry’s grandmother Barbara Collins cries most all day, trying to hold on for the rest of the family. Grandfather James, proud and tough, wants his little buddy back so much, he would give anything for it.

Hits you like a freight train

Believe me, I know how a workplace death hits you like a freight train, rips your heart out and you never, ever get it back. I lost my 19-year-old son Pat, who suffocated beneath 60 tons of corn that collapsed on him in a Florida panhandle grain silo in 1993. There was is no justice. No one paid any consequences. No one went to jail. I looked around me and no one even seemed to care that another worker is gone. My Pat died almost 20 years ago. I can tell you there’s been no end to my upset. No relief. It just hurts and hurts and hurts.

It is said, “Time heals all wounds.“  I have not found this to be true, not with these kinds of deaths, not when you have feelings of such outrage. Kerry will never be forgotten by his family. But time will not put this family back together. The suffering goes on and on. And no one pays.

I pray each day: Please someone take notice.