Barry Weatherall was 38 years old when he lost his vision in a work-related incident.
“I’m very lucky to be alive today,” said Weatherall, who was the keynote speaker during the Day of Mourning ceremony at Bower Ponds in Red Deer on Friday morning.
In 1998, while working as a plumbing and heating engineer, Weatherall was cleaning a pipe with sulphuric acid when it exploded in his face.
“The only reason I am alive today is because I kept on a paper dust mask,” he said.
“I had third-degree burns and instant blindness. My world completely turned upside down and changed from then on.”
He had 22 surgeries over the course of eight years and had to wear a pressure mask for nine years.
“My marriage broke up because of the accident. It totally changed the dynamic of the relationship with my wife,” he said.
“I had to learn how to go from being a sighted person to being a totally blind person and how to actually get around as a blind person and become a part of life again.”
Since the accident, Weatherall has had to learn how to use a cane while walking, and how to read and write in braille.
“I had to deal with the rollercoaster ride of being alone, the depression that came along with the accident, the suicidal thoughts that I had during the accident and during all of the procedures I underwent,” he said.
Weatherall eventually began to find himself again after the accident by participating in different activities, such as white water rafting, rock climbing and travelling.
“I started to feel like there was nothing I couldn’t do. I just felt like I had to do things differently,” he said.
“My world is pretty good now compared to what it was in the beginning (and) how it totally affected me and my wife at the time. … Even today, I still have a hard time with the loss of independence – asking people to help me do things that I could do myself when I had vision.”
The annual Day of Mourning gives people the opportunity to honour and pay our respects to those who have lost their lives, been injured, or became ill due to work-related incidents.
“After what I’ve been through, I understand the traumas and tragedies that come along with an accident or injury. If this can help prevent just one person going through what I’ve been through, then this is very important to do,” he said.
Brad Vonkeman, Parkland Regional Safety Committee chair, said Day of Mourning is an important day to mark in the calendar.
“We want to get the message out that we need to stop hurting people at work or killing people at work,” he said.
“We as safety professionals do what we can to make sure we’re not adding to the statistics and numbers of workers being impacted by workplace tragedies.”
The Red Deer ceremony is organized by a subcommittee within the Parkland Regional Safety Committee.
In 2022, Alberta lost 161 individuals to work-related injury or illness. Nationally, more than 1,000 died last year.
“It’s disturbing,” he said.
“These are people who expect to go home at the end of the day and we want them to go home at the end of the day. We need to do a better job of getting the message out and working with young people so they understand early on in their careers that safety is important and there’s industry willing to support them in that safety.”
Between 2019 and 2021, more than a third of all workplace fatalities in Alberta were in the construction industry.