Council's Safety Week 2019

Published: 25 Oct 2019 2:36pm

MICHELLE Rath’s 49th birthday started like so many others, with an early text message from her youngest son, Alex.

It was short and beautifully simple, reading ‘Happy birthday Mummy’.

Tragically, Alex would never get the chance to make that final phone call, and Michelle would never again hear the voice of her beloved son.

Only hours later, whilst working inside the roof of a residential property north of Adelaide, the 23-year-old, 4th year refrigeration and air-conditioning apprentice came into contact with a live wire.

He was fatally electrocuted.

“Alex was fault finding when the accident occurred,” his father Rob said, while addressing Wagga Wagga City Council staff on Tuesday.

“The tenant of the property had heard two bangs 15 minutes before speaking to Alex’s boss Daniel on the phone.

“By the time an ambulance arrived on the scene, 27 minutes had elapsed.”

Those 27, long minutes robbed Alex – an otherwise fit and healthy young man - of any chance of survival.

“Following electric shock, there’s a window of opportunity where paramedics can bring you back,” Rob said, after being consulted by the emergency services.

“That small chance to be revived was taken away from Alex.”

Alex’s death in the horror workplace accident triggered the beginning of a hellish nightmare for parents Rob and Michelle, older brothers Ashley and Curtis and fiancé Kristy.

The family was then forced to confront the prospect of burying a young man with infinite promise, who loved touch football, Aussie rules, drag racing and playing the piano.

“Alex was engaged to be married and was six months out from his wedding day and he’d invested in a property outside of the Barossa Valley,” proud mum Michelle said.

“He was going to take over the business he was working for. He was going places.”

Due to an ongoing and intensive Safework South Australia investigation, it would be 9 unimaginable days before the grief-stricken family could see or touch Alex.

His body was considered key evidence by the coroner’s department.

“Imagine that, walking up to the edge of a casket and there’s your precious one laying there, not moving. The worst thing, they’re cold,” Rob said.

From that moment on, life irrevocably changed for the Rath family.

Six and a half years down the track, Alex would have turned 30 in January and this week would have marked his 6th wedding anniversary.

Instead, Michelle is forced to visit “her baby” in a cemetery, each one of her own, painful milestones spent watering the lawn over her son with a beer in his honour.

“I will never have another birthday. I now call it Mother-Son Day,” Michelle said.

“All we have now are memories. We’ll never get the chance to take another photo of Alex.”

Michelle and Rob bravely shared their story in Wagga as part of Wagga City Council’s Safety Week 2019, in a bid to spare other families the trauma, grief and loss they’ve experienced – and continue to live with each and every day.

“Advocating on Alex’s behalf literally gives me a reason to get up each day… it’s given me a sense of purpose and strength and means that Alex is always with me,” Michelle said.

The pair encourage all employees, whether they be tradies on a construction site or Council staff in an office setting, to think carefully about the choices they make.

“Don’t risk taking short cuts, as it can ultimately cut your life short,” Michelle said.

“If you don’t have the appropriate training, don’t do it. If you don’t feel safe, don’t do it. If you see something, be brave and speak up.”

Michelle believes everyone needs to take responsibility for creating a safe working environment, conceding what her family has lived through can happen to anyone.

“It doesn’t matter how good you are at your job, if you’re not here to reap the rewards of it today, it’s all for nothing,” Michelle said.

Council’s Work Health and Safety Advisor Julie Philpott echoed the Rath’s message, describing Safety Week as an important opportunity for all employees to reflect on why they should perform their jobs safely.

“All of us have multiple reasons to go home at the end of the day in the shape that we arrived,” she said.

“This is a week to think about the ways you can ensure your own safety, and that of your mates.”

While Michelle and Rob courageously share Alex’s journey, his legacy lives on in the most heart-warming way.

“Alex’s nephew Tyler Alexander will one day inherit his uncle’s beloved car,” Michelle said.

“Alex actually has a name in five babies, including his boss’ son… he asked us if we would mind if he called his first-born Alex.”