My boy Les is something like 2.1 in every 100,000 — the approximate rate at which New Zealanders are dying from injuries in the workplace. Make that 1 in 50,000.

I'm mad about statistics, but maddest about this one, which on September 11 last year switched these odds to 1 in 1.

Workmates had noticed while I was away from the desk that my phone had been ringing. Then I spot a text message, from my daughter: "EMERGENCY!!! RING ASAP!!!! ITS LEZ"

It's 2.59pm. Simultaneously I get a message to ring Middlemore Hospital.


By the time I get off the phone, by 3.01pm, it was on Facebook, from his brother. "imma miss u Less Laing! i only just found out from mum. rest easy!"

My boy Les, 28, father of four with one on the way, first day back at work at an off-port log export operation in Mangere after six weeks on ACC because some clown punched him in the eye while he was ordering takeaways for his kids at a Papakura restaurant, early on a Monday night.

But on this Monday night, Les wouldn't be coming home.

Everyone, the catchcry goes, has the right to go to work in the morning, to support their family, and expect to come home at night.

Reporting tragedy had been a far-too-common event in the day job, teaching, among other things, an empathy with those whose lives are so shattered.

The younger days about the time Leslie Laing started school at Richmond School in Matraenui, Napier. From left, sister Pani, Leslie, and dad Doug Laing. Photo / Supplied
The younger days about the time Leslie Laing started school at Richmond School in Matraenui, Napier. From left, sister Pani, Leslie, and dad Doug Laing. Photo / Supplied

Having to empathise with oneself, suddenly, is a master art for which there is no manual.

Life-changing in the extreme and in the 33 weeks and five days since perhaps the biggest change of all - other than the obvious - has been that despite it having been a full summer, the nights have always been longer than the days.

Feeling like you've been smacked from behind by a truck is more regular than a daily event.


Exactly what happened is still with investigators from Worksafe NZ, who keep in touch and whose job I don't envy at all.

What we can say from Worksafe's Workplace Fatalities Summary, the workplace equivalent of the road toll, is: "11/09/2017. Manufacturing. 28. Manukau. Struck by bucket falling from stationary digger."

It was just on 12 months since Bao (as his nephews and nieces called him) walked out of a Work and Income queue in Hamilton, telling his sister, "This ain't the place for me."

On the noticeboard as he walked out, someone in Auckland was seeking someone of his log-scaling capabilities. A quick phone call, then getting "Sis" to drive him to Auckland straight away for the interview. Just the guy they were looking for - "Yea Boi, cracked it," he'd say.

He had a daughter living with her mum in Hastings, another with her mum in Napier, and another and the prized first son living with him and his partner, and two of her other children, in Papakura.

He hated the thought of not being able to provide for them all, and wanted to get on top of family matters that had dominated his past 10 years.

In simple, it was about 1.30 on that Monday afternoon, and Les and his workmates were loading logs into shipping containers for export, out of Auckland.

He'd been a proud bod the day he got to drive that big machine, but this day he was on the ground, as he eased back into work after recuperating from the injury he'd suffered at the hands of a random attacker (a 52-year-old real estate agency boss who stalked him in some sort of fit of road rage).

A growing family, from left Leslie Laing and sisters Roimata and Pani, and, front, Pani's daughter, Devon. Photo / Supplied
A growing family, from left Leslie Laing and sisters Roimata and Pani, and, front, Pani's daughter, Devon. Photo / Supplied

The machine had stopped, his workmates rushed to his aid, and, as the ambulance seemed to be taking way too long, took him on the back of the boss' truck to the hospital a short distance away.

He was talking to them, and when they watched him go through the doors in A&E none thought it was the last time. By the time they got back to work, a police officer was already there.

They were told Les hadn't made it, as one workmate would relate the next day when I met them for the first time, as the worksite was blessed, and as we met his distraught boss, and Worksafe staff.

Les would have had a big future in the business, the boss would say, and he'd made significant contributions already to changes in the workplace.

His partner would rush to the hospital where she would be near-alone for some hours as family and friends travelled to Auckland, where friends living in the area — family of a former partner and the mother of his younger sister — would rush to the house, wondering "what about the kids" about to arrive home from school and kohanga.

The machine operator was a guy Les had met socially, finding a connection in that they'd both grown up in Maraenui, both young dads with kids.

Les let him know there was a job at the site. He spoke during the tangi at Pukemokimoki Marae in Napier a few days later.

It was a relief to learn in the early stages of the inquiry that he was not considered culpable for what had happened.

This wasn't the only workplace fatality in Mangere in September. Just 11 days later a man was "crushed by shipping container".

By Wednesday of this week, it was one of 22 workplace fatalities reported to Worksafe NZ since the death of my boy Les.

The inquiry continues, to find out not only if anyone should be held accountable, but most importantly to ensure his life had not been lost in vain, by trying to make sure nothing so devastating happens again.

Whatever the circumstances, there has been, as was observed at last week's Workers Memorial Day in Napier, a general increase in workplace accident rates since the advent of the Employment Contracts Act in 1991, and diminished worker representation as the eyes and ears on the ground.

Last month, Worksafe NZ launched the "Use Your Mouth" campaign "to encourage New Zealand workers to speak up about health and safety".

It focuses on "bullying, fatigue, vehicles, manual handling, slips, trips and falls, hazardous substances and noise", and challenges workers to report workplace risks or concerns to their superiors.

As it happens, in Auckland risky jobs are for many a temporary stop while waiting for something better. And some feel uncomfortable about rocking the boat, worried about ending up back in the dole queue, and on stand-down (for two weeks they can't receive a benefit, and it could be up to 26 weeks).

Doug Laing is a senior journalist at Hawke's Bay Today