From the silent voice of death come the soundest lessons in life

23rd November 2010  (Author Andrea Madeley - VOID Founder)



Weatherford Drilling International (AUST) is one of the largest oilfield service companies in the world, employing over 50,000 people across 100 countries.  The company boasts a worth of approximately $9.5 billion.

In January 2008 the mobile oil rig known as ‘Rig 709’ was operating in the Cooper Basin for SANTOS.  On the morning of January 27th at about 10.00am Frederick Kekena was assisting a Floorman and another assistant driller to unscrew a Braden Head installation tool. In use at the time was a ‘manual tong’ - that being the reason why Frederick Kekena died.  Had the company ensured there were ‘Safe Operating Procedures’ in place, Frederick Kekena would still be alive today and his family would not have experienced this terrible loss.

Now before I go much further, it is true and fair to say that Weatherford Drilling have done more than many companies might in trying to make amends in the face of this terrible tragedy.  On its own steam it did pay immediate compensation to the deceased worker’s partner and his young children beyond what they might ordinarily receive through the Workers Compensation Scheme.  Nor did Weatherford partake in a mindless legal battles in order to shrug off accountability.  However, one may also assume that the evidence was stacked up in a way that perhaps would not have made such a legal battle a worthwhile venture.  That said, we know sometimes in the face of heavy evidence, loop holes and legal arguments are hunted down and this wealthy international company certainly could have used its resources to do just that, but they didn’t.  The family was spared years of delays and for that Weatherford Drilling International should be commended.

It seems such a bloody shame though when you look a little closer at how things play out behind the scenes...

You see, in an unusual step, the CEO of Weatherford Drilling International stood there in the South Australian Industrial Court on July 27th 2010 and verbally expressed its sincere regret to the family of Frederick Kekena.  Mr Steven Ford talked about all the things the company had done for the family.  The trust fund for his children, the funeral expenses (of which I do suspect a portion would have been paid for by WorkCover). There was talk about what the company had done to rectify its shortcomings in standard safety practises and it did accept that its safety practises were lacking.

It might have been a picture perfect performance had it not been for the phone call received from the mother of Frederick Kekena a day after this all took place.

In fact at this point she and her husband Charles were still in Adelaide having flown in from New Zealand for the hearing.  Over the course of our phone call it was quite evident that the picture wasn’t quite painted as nicely as that speech in the court room had us believe.  Should we be surprised?  Sadly the answer is no - disappointed yes, shocked or surprised, not really.  

Now in all this glorified banter by the CEO of this company in the presence of Magistrate Ardlie, what we didn’t hear about was how callously the door was slammed on this Mother’s request to visit the site where her son died.  Now why would that happen when in the face of it all the family, by account of Mr Ford’s words in court, had been dealt with so compassionately?  

Maybe we need to clarify the word FAMILY...and yet again, we note that in times of unbelievable grief, frictions within the family can be magnified tenfold.  We see this all the time within the realm of workplace death.  There is no question in my mind that the catalyst is a need for people to be recognised as also having lost someone they love.  

The problem for those outside the ‘next of kin’ status is that they begin to feel like bystanders rather than part of the immediate family.  For the parents and siblings, the reality dawns that they have no voice, no legal rights.  At a time when emotions are raw and people are struggling at all ends of this tragic spectrum, even seemingly harmless words can feel like enormous insults.  The animosity begins to fester - and of course the one who is now the legal next of kin will feel every word like a knife - likewise on the other side.  

So the fragile family mesh begins to tear apart rather than stick together.

Is this unique to workplace deaths?  I’m not sure ... Certainly it is something we do see more often than anyone wants.

It’s very common in de facto relationships (with or without children) but rarely in marriages.  

Those on the outside looking in may see this as a grab for money - in truth this is the stigma that attaches itself very quickly to almost every workplace death. Maybe to some degree, as a whole, society today has evolved to expecting something more tangible than mere words. However I also believe it goes much deeper than that.

No parent will ever be able to overcome the death of one of their children and only a parent that has experienced this tragic loss will understand that.  That deep sense of survival-guilt is insanely destructive.  You will never, ever be able to convince a grieving mother that she does not matter anymore because her child has grown up.  Deep inside of her, that maternal bond that came to be the day she gave birth is now screaming with ferocious demands.  It is not something that can be switched off like a light bulb.  It’s not something that can be seen or experienced by others unless they have experienced such a painful loss.  

Now what Weatherford Drilling did not mention in court - that long list of ‘things’ the company had done for this family, was to mention what they had refused to do.

Have you ever driven by and seen the flowers and notes roadside where someone was killed?  Have you ever wondered why people feel drawn to visit the last place their loved one was alive?

The problems we face as families who lose someone in a workplace death is that the location is mostly on private property.  There is no legal access and so for those who feel drawn to connect with that location need to seek permission.  In this case, when that permission was sought, Weatherford Drilling simply did nothing to assist in this matter.  They have the resources, they have the capacity - the company could have made this happen, they should have made this happen, but they chose not to.  Why? The company claimed they had no access to the area since they did not have any legal power over the land.  SANTOS are in control of the area.

So this seemed a pretty simple measure. If we can get SANTOS to agree to access, then surely this becomes a non-issue?  Weatherford Drilling could then make this small request happen.

VOID had hoped to assist Tia to the site.  With the help of a few very helpful journalists who made contact with SANTOS, it would appear SANTOS had no issue with this and certainly would not oppose the request.

Promptly VOID contacted Weatherford Drilling with this news.  The Weatherford Drilling CEO and I had a chat - their position was then and is now, the company stands firm, it will not assist in any way.  

Weatherford Drilling’s position is that the company has done all it needs to in the eyes of the law... Thus our conversation ended.

What a SHAME!  Just when we thought we had a company that was going above and beyond the call of duty - too quickly it becomes evident that these court room exercises are as superficial as the fines they receive.

Where to from here?  

Obviously VOID needs funding so we that can begin to make a difference beyond raising these issues.  Clearly we can’t rely on company CEO’s to fill the gap - after all, the company only is responsible for causing the death, why should they have to clean up the deluge of broken people?