Day of Mourning: Melanie Kowalski-Fleming's Story

Introduction: This podcast is brought to you by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

CCOHS is situated upon the traditional territories of the Erie, Neutral, Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Mississaugas. This land is covered by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabek to share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. We further acknowledge that this land is covered by the Between the Lakes Purchase, 1792, between the Crown and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.

Elaine: Hello and welcome to Health and Safety to Go, a podcast broadcasting from the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety in Hamilton, Ontario.

Every April, in advance of the Day of Mourning, we invite a guest from Threads of Life to join us and share their story of how a workplace tragedy impacted their life. The Day of Mourning marked on April 28th in Canada. Each year is a day dedicated to remembering those who lost their lives suffered an injury or illness on the job or experienced a work-related tragedy.

Threads of Life is a Canadian charity that supports families after workplace fatalities life-altering injuries or an occupational disease.

Today we're joined by Threads of Life volunteer Melanie Kowalski-Fleming who lost her husband Mark from a fall at work. Melanie shares her personal story with us in the hope of preventing another family from having to experience a workplace tragedy and to heighten awareness about what we can do in our own workplaces to advocate for health and safety.

Melanie, welcome and thank you so much for joining us today.

Melanie Kowalski-Fleming: Thank you so much.

Elaine: Can you tell us about your husband Mark and what kind of work he did?

Melanie: Mark and I met in 2008 on a dating app of all things. The first things that drew me to Mark was his smile, his big laugh, and his sense of humor. Our families had so much in common that we grew up, kind of, just passing each other but never actually meeting. We used to joke that I married the boy next door.

Mark loved watching sports, especially hockey and playing Pro-Line, having a few beers, and just hanging out and having quiet Saturday nights. He was dedicated Bud Drinker and um; I think most of his wardrobe was free Budweiser t-shirts and hats. He loved to work in his shop on weekends always finding projects to do. He lived in his work boots and even got a brand-new pair to wear to our wedding. He worked hard at any project he set his mind to and was a very talented carpenter and electrician. He went to Fanshawe College and graduated with Construction Engineering Management and continued his education to become an industrial electrician. Mark was dedicated to his job and had been at the same company for almost 17 years at the time of his incident. Mark worked for a large manufacturing company repairing and troubleshooting electrical issues.

Elaine: And can you tell us about a little bit more about the day that you learned Mark had been injured?

Melanie: The day that changed our lives forever was Saturday April 2nd, 2011. Mark and I had been married only 7 months. Mark went to work for a typical overtime shift and just a few hours into his shift, while repairing an electrical panel, he would suffer life-altering and devastating injuries after a fall from a ladder in his workplace.

I remember everything about the moment I got the phone call about Mark being injured; from what I was doing, to what I was eating, to how the house smelled. I remember everything slowing down and a sort of detached calm taking over my mind and body. I felt it before I ever answered the phone. Sometimes you just know.

Nothing prepares you for the scared voice of the work nurse on the other end of the line. All the nurses would tell me was that Mark had been injured and was being taken to hospital by ambulance. The weight of that conversation was so heavy. I could barely get the words out to ask, “Do I have 5 minutes to get dressed or do I just get in my car and go?”

Mark was not one to go to the hospital. If he could use duct tape or Krazy Glue to fix it, he would. This ended up being so much more than what duct tape or crazy glue could fix.
I had so many thoughts and yet everything stood still at the time. Calling my parents was the first action I took because I didn't know what to expect and no one should have to get bad news alone. At the time only my dad was home and he dropped everything to come.

We arrived at the hospital and were immediately escorted into a private waiting room. The waiting to know how bad something is can be excruciating and feels endless. The doctor explained to us that Mark had fallen from a ladder in a confined area and had suffered multiple injuries. They were transferring him immediately to the London Health Sciences Center Critical Care Unit because they could not provide the treatment he needed.

No one says how bad it is out loud, but I could feel the weight of concern and the worry etched on every face I passed. I honestly think looking back now Mark was not expected to survive his injuries. Mark would spend 2 weeks in the critical care unit. It was the longest 2 weeks of my life waiting to see how much he would recover. Mark suffered a large laceration to his head. He broke his shoulder in 3 places broke his neck at C6 C7 vertebrae, requiring surgery to stabilize his spine. He had also suffered multiple compressed skull fractures which caused trauma and bleeding to his brain.

He would spend the first few days in a medically induced coma to give his brain and body time to rest and even then, they were not sure if or when he would wake up. It turned out that waking up was the easiest part of this journey bringing Mark home brought a whole new set of challenges.

Elaine: Can you tell us a bit more about some of the challenges you and your family faced afterwards?

Melanie: To this day, I still don't have a clear understanding of how Mark's incident happened. He was working with a partner that day to troubleshoot a problem on a large piece of stamping equipment. I have been told the space was not adequate for a lift and therefore a ladder had to be used to gain access to an electrical panel that was approximately 8 to 10 feet high. Mark was on the ladder and his partner was working on the main panel some distance away. There were no witnesses to Mark's incident. Mark's partner found him after the fall because he became unresponsive to their radio communications.

I know that the area was covered in oil and somewhat confined. However, the reasons that caused the fall will likely never be known. I know that there was a full investigation and some kind of decision but I was so focused on Mark's recovery that I didn't ask very many questions at the time. We had just begun to build our lives together. And now I was having to be a full-time everything. In the beginning I was at every appointment writing everything down so that I could ask questions or research because most of what was being said was over my head.

He came home in a neck brace shoulder brace with stitches requiring wound care and disorientated. He had so much medication that we needed a list to keep track and timers to remember when to take it. He required constant supervision and assistance with most daily tasks. We had to move a hospital bed into our living room because it was challenging for him to roll over or even sit up. He would have seizures and fall often and continue to injure himself.

We did all the right things to create a safe and healing place for Mark including a fall sensor to give him a sense of independence. For me, I lived in constant fear of coming home to another fall during a seizure. This would happen so often and there were many, many more trips to the hospital for stitches. There were so many trips. In fact, that we joked about getting a frequent flyer card having to call for an ambulance became so routine that I would get anxiety and shakes every time I heard a siren or drove by an accident.

You lose yourself when someone you love becomes ill because everything about your life is directed towards getting them as healthy as possible. Every day was a new challenge because Mark became progressively worse and not better. I watched my best friend and once thriving husband mentally and physically decline dying slowly before my eyes. The years between his incident and final passing were the scariest most painful and traumatizing of my life. Mark passed away 4 years after his incident on August 11th, 2015, as a result of the injury. He suffered from his workplace incident. After fighting hard to regain assemblance of who he was before the incident.

Elaine: I know that's heartbreaking to share. Um, how did you get involved with Threads of Life? And how are they able to support you?

Melanie: For a long time after Mark's passing, I was left struggling with unanswered questions and grief. Trying hard to make sense of why this happened to our family. I was searching to give meaning to the loss of Mark and share my experiences. I have worked in an industrial setting for more than 25 years. I have experienced near miss accidents and been an injured worker myself. I have participated in safety videos, safety training, and drills. I have done all of the right things and training and yet it wasn't until Mark's incident shattered my world that I realized there was so much more that I could be doing. I became passionate about sharing Mark's story and bringing awareness to the real-life impact of workplace tragedies.

I didn't learn about Threads of Life until after Mark had passed away. You become sensitive to any news stories about workplace incidences, and it was through an article of yet another family's tragedy that I read about Threads of Life. As soon as I read the mission statement of Threads of Life, I knew I had found my community.

Elaine: So how did you become a volunteer for the organization?

Melanie: My personal journey with Threads of Life started with attending the London [Ontario] and area Steps for Life event. I created a team called Work Boot Warriors in honour of Mark and raised funds that year.

I was inspired by the family speaker I met that year and watching him bravely honor his family member and how powerful the connection to community could be. I decided in that moment that this was the place I belonged. And it has been 5 years since that moment and not only do I still have my team, I am on the London area steps for Life committee, I'm a volunteer family guide, and a volunteer speaker for Threads of life.

Elaine: That's great. Melanie, if you could give one piece of advice to people about workplace health and safety what would that be?

Melanie: Ask yourself “what you can do today to create a safer and healthier workplace?” It's as simple as knowing the three basic rights of every worker in Canada. You have the right to know what hazards are present in the workplace and be given information and training and supervision. You need to protect yourself. You have the right to participate in keeping your workplace healthy and safe. It is your right to report unsafe conditions and practices in your workplace. You have the right to refuse work that you believe to be dangerous to yourself or your co-workers.

Following proper procedures to refuse unsafe work can and will save lives. We can all take more proactive steps to ensure health safety and well-being of everyone around us.

Dedicate the time to educate yourself your family and your co-workers about safe and healthy practices at home and at work. It is every worker's right to arrive home whole and safe to their families.

Elaine: Great advice. Now before we wrap up today is there anything else you'd like to share with our listeners about your experience or about Mark?

Melanie: On any given workday in Canada 3 people will die from a job-related fatality life-altering injury or occupational disease hundreds will be injured and thousands of families, communities, and workplaces will be affected. As much as it is painful to share Mark's story my hope is that it will prevent another family or workplace from ever having to experience this kind of loss.

Please reach out to Threads of Life if you feel the resources there can be beneficial to you your community or your workplace the connection to community and workplaces is how we continue to support and educate and eventually succeed in eliminating workplace fatalities life-altering injuries and occupational diseases.

Elaine: Melanie, I want to thank you for sharing your story with us today. Hearing from families who have been impacted by workplace incidents reminds us of the importance of the work that we do here at the Centre as well as the importance of the work Threads of Life does to advocate for an end to life altering workplace injuries, illnesses, and deaths.

Every year thousands of people across Canada support Threads of Life by walking in the Steps for Life fundraising events that typically follow the National Day of Mourning, usually at the end of April or early May, around Safety and Health Week. You can learn more about the event being held in your community and how to participate by visiting and

Thanks for listening everybody.