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Shirley Hickman is the Executive Director and Family Support Program Manager of Threads of Life, a Canadian organization that assists those who have been affected by a workplace tragedy. The organization provides peer support assistance and referrals while promoting public awareness and accountability for workplace safety and health.

In this interview, Hickman further describes the work and mission of Threads of Life and the measures it has taken since its start in 2002 to reach out to those in need of support and healing.

Please provide a brief overview of the work and mission of the Threads of Life organization and of your role as Family Support Program Manager.

Threads of Life is a support organization that provides a network of hope and healing to families who have been touched by a workplace tragedy. A workplace tragedy is a fatality, life-altering injury or occupational disease. The vision of Threads of Life is to lead and to inspire a culture shift in which work-related injuries are morally, socially and economically unacceptable.

As Family Support Program Manager, I:

•  Recruit and interview candidates who wish to become volunteer Family Guides

•  Coordinate Family Guide training

•  Manage training and ongoing learning opportunities

•  Coordinate networking and sharing opportunities for family members and friends, including, but not limited to, face-to-face meetings, teleconferencing and virtual chats

•  Supervise and support volunteer Family Guides to ensure that they faithfully represent the mandate of Threads of Life

Threads of Life is a new, unique and very small organization. I am also the Executive Director, which means that I am responsible for the organization's growth and for the development of business plans. We also have two other part-time staff members.

In what ways do workplace tragedies affect victims' families, friends and co-workers? How does Threads of Life assist those who are affected?

The ripple effect of a workplace tragedy is enormous. Those close to victims can suffer from psychiatric problems, stress-related physical health problems, substance abuse, marital breakdown, family stresses, suicide, productivity loss and personal income loss, which can all result in increased social welfare costs. For those who lose children, fathers, mothers or other family members or who experience a life-altering injury or illness, Threads of Life will provide:

•  Referrals to professional support services

•  A support network for those who have experienced similar pain and suffering

•  Advisory support during the workplace investigation and inquest process

•  Opportunities to be a Canadian voice in promoting workplace injury prevention and awareness within their own communities

The LifeQuilt, a memorial tapestry dedicated to young workers (ages 15-24) in Canada who have been severely or fatally injured on the job, inspired the creation of Threads of Life, and Threads of Life continues to provide a voice for young workers. Do you believe that the occupational safety and health of this particular age group is overlooked in Canada and in other countries? Why or why not?

Perhaps not overlooked, but definitely underestimated as a high-risk age group when it comes to workplace injuries and fatalities. Improper training, young workers who feel too intimidated to ask questions about their safety and health training or the lack of it all feed into the high-risk category. I believe that education and awareness initiatives have increased significantly within the past decade. This focus will save lives and prevent injuries.

How does Threads of Life encourage employers to promote sound safety and health practices among employees, especially among young workers?

Threads of Life offers employers access to its Speakers' Bureau. We encourage employers to take advantage of our trained injury prevention champions. These champions visit employers' sites and give presentations on the “Face of Workplace Tragedy.” These personal testimonials cut through any safety and health statistics and promote the message that safety and health is everyone's responsibility—we must work together to make our workplaces safer.

Who are the partners of Threads of Life, and how do they support the organization?

Our partners have always been described as any organizations that share in our belief that injuries in the workplace are predictable and completely preventable. In Canada, our stakeholders include, but are not limited to:

•  Safety and health associations

•  Provincial and territorial compensation groups

•  Provincial and federal governments

•  Labor groups

•  Families affected by a workplace tragedy

Partners can support Threads of Life by:

1. Participating in our Partners Advisory Group. This group meets bimonthly to provide strategic direction and accountability to the operations of the organization.

2. Participating in our Professional Advisory Group. This national group meets regularly to provide strategic and professional input to the development and coordination of the Family Support program.

3. Becoming a member of our Board of Directors. Threads of Life is currently searching for a nationally representative Board of Directors. There are five positions available.

Please describe the Family Support Program and the Community Action Program. How do these programs benefit those affected by workplace tragedies?

In order to support families that are affected by workplace tragedy, the Family Support Program connects them to existing groups and services and to those who have suffered in a similar way. This program aims to provide the emotional support and caring required to help them through their journey of healing.

The Family Support Program provides:

1. Personal and sustained interaction with a trained peer to facilitate a sharing of experiences.

2. An opportunity for families and workers to meet each other and to create communities of support.

3. Mechanisms through which common knowledge gaps or needs are identified and addressed.

4. Materials and resources to assist in understanding grieving or traumatic emotional processes and experiences.

The trained peers are called Volunteer Family Guides (VFGs). These VFGs undergo a ten-day residential training program so that they can offer one-on-one peer support to ensure that families are walking through the journey of healing instead of being “carried” through it.

The Community Action Program, which will be launched in 2006, will provide opportunities to raise awareness and accountability of workplace safety and health among Canadians. The program's goal is to create a cultural shift toward safety and health in workplaces and communities across Canada. By working in partnership with each of the jurisdictional compensation boards, Threads of Life will demonstrate that no one person can impact change on their own, but collectively as one voice, change can and will occur.

The Community Action Program will consist of:

1. The Speakers' Bureau.
2. Focus groups.
3. Media relations.
4.  Grassroots action.

How do labor organizations in Canada support the efforts of Threads of Life?

Labor groups are extremely supportive of the program. The Ontario Federation of Labor sits on our Partner Advisory Committee and has provided us with special project funding. We have also received key project funding from the Canadian Automotive Workers (CAW).

What do you believe is the greatest success of Threads of Life since its launch in April 2003?

Our greatest success was training eight family members in 2005 to become VFGs. The Volunteer Family Guides provide our families affected by a workplace tragedy with our unique one-on-one peer support services.

What new projects or initiatives does Threads of Life have planned for 2006?

We have begun to develop the “Speakers' Bureau,” component of our Community Action Program. This program will be launched at the beginning of next year, and we plan to expand the Threads of Life concept to another province in the spring where we will train more VFGs.

Biography

In 1996, Shirley Hickman's and her family's lives were forever changed with the tragic death of her son Tim. While working in a London, Ontario arena, an explosion occurred, and Tim died as a result of his injuries. Since that time, Hickman has focused on making a difference in workplace safety and health.

Hickman volunteered with the Safe Communities Coalition in London and later became a regional coordinator. During her time with the Safe Communities Foundation, Hickman worked with several communities in the Western Ontario region to help them to become safer at home, work and play. For the past five years, Hickman's story has been showcased in the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board's advertising campaign with the hope that heightened injury prevention awareness will save lives.

In 2002, Hickman founded Threads of Life—A Workplace Tragedy Family Support Association. It has been Hickman's vision to help families affected by a workplace tragedy during their journey of healing by providing them with peer support assistance and referrals while promoting public awareness and accountability for workplace safety and health. Hickman and Threads of Life are working with over 200 families from across Canada who have been affected by a workplace tragedy. Her mission and that of Threads of Life is to lead and to inspire a culture shift in which work-related injuries and illnesses are morally, socially and economically unacceptable.