Ron is always a man on the go. Especially since 1993, when his 19-year-old boy Patrick was killed, suffocated, as he cleared corn from the inside walls of a grain silo in the Florida panhandle. It was though Patrick slipped into quicksand, quicksand composed of 60 tons of corn grain.
After Pat’s death, Ron and his wife Dot founded The F.I.G.H.T Project — Families In Grief Hold Together. Ronnie has put hundreds of thousands of miles on his cars driving days and weeks and through the nights to just about every corner of the country to meet with grieving families who have lost kin in workplace safety tragedies, or have had kin irreparable damaged. Or to give a speech, conduct training workshops, or try to teach OSHA compliance officers empathy.
Ron talks of one man who suffered a fall at work and sustained tremendous head trauma when his skull was impaled on an iron rod. He is alive today, living in an assisted care facility. He is like a child, with the mental capacity of a five year old, according to Ron. His kids have grown into teenagers, his wife has steadied the household. But none of this he knows.
Not every father, mother, husband, wife, child or sibling of a worker killed on the job regains their footing. Ron has counseled for almost 20 years one woman who lost her son. He talks of a man in West Virginia whose son died in the Massey mine cave-in. The father spends his days sitting on his front porch. “I can’t go back in a mine, Ronnie,” he says by phone.
Ron is a thickly built man in his 50s, a construction contractor with a friendly, weathered face. He doles out tough love when he thinks it’s right. “You just can’t sit on your porch day after day,” he tells the miner. “What have you done for your son in the two years since he died? You’ve done nothing, right? Do something. Plant a tree in his name. Start a charity.”
I asked Ron what he says to a victim’s kin who say, “The day my boy was killed my life ended. I have nothing to live for.”
“Well, they’re right in a way,” he says. “Life will never, ever be the same. They have to start all over again. Learn how to do things all over again. Kind of create a new life. You never forget. You pray. You know you will see them again in heaven. That helps.”
I asked if men and women react differently to a workplace death in the family.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “Mommas feel like their baby’s been pulled right out of their bodies. They tend to have it rougher. Men, we bond with our children after they are born. We have a different kind of relationship. Men most likely also have to get back to their job sooner or later. That takes their mind off the loss, at least some. If you work construction or operate a crane or heavy equipment, you’ve gotta concentrate on what you’re doing or you’ll get killed on the job.”
Ron mentions a woman in Kansas, a mother who lost her son, who spent two years in bed after his death. The woman’s own parents had to bring her meals. Slowly she recovered. Now she is back at work. She’s set up a foundation in her son’s name. It keeps her busy.
At about the two-year mark after a death on the job the victim’s kin go either one way or the other, Ron has noticed. “I don’t know why it is, but I see it again and again. After about two years, they either start to move on or spiral down. If they spiral down it’s usually into alcohol or drugs. And they don’t come back.”
Don’t these folks seek help, treatment, for post-traumatic stress? I asked Ron. “Sure they do. But unless you are talking to someone who has experienced the same kind of loss and pain, it only does so much good.”
And that is why Ron Hayes keeps getting phone calls and emails from distraught, devastated families around the country. All his travels, speeches, training, and counseling have given him an amazing reach. Of course he has a Facebook page, The F.I.G.H.T. Project. And a toll free 800 number direct to his cramped office in a trailer parked in his backyard in Fairhope, Alabama, near Mobile: I-800-388-8644 code 19. His email: firstname.lastname@example.org
I have heard more than once Ron describe to an audience the day his son Pat died. Each time, he tells the story like it happened yesterday.