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Changing focus – Gavan's story

Safety Advocates

Gavan McGuane's life changed in a matter of seconds after a completely preventable workplace incident.

At just 36, Gavan lost all vision in one eye, and 80 per cent of his vision in the other, after he tripped and fell onto a beer keg, resulting in an alkaline substance mixed with gas under pressure spraying into his face.

Changing focus – Gavan's story reveals a heartbreaking story, which continues to impact heavily on Gavan, as well as his family and friends.

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VICKI: The hospitality industry can be a potential minefield for injuries.

VICKI: The most common forms of injury are things like ankle sprains, and you get wrist sprains, you get back injuries...

VICKI: Or shoulder injuries from people lifting up cartons too high.

VICKI: Some people suffer from things like allergic reactions from some of the chemicals used.

VICKI: We also get burns. We've had some very nasty injuries with hot fat.

VICKI: There's also a lot of cuts obviously from the kitchen areas.

VICKI: There can be slips, trips and falls and because some areas work to 2 3 4 in the morning, then you can add fatigue on top of that as well.

VICKI: When you talk about slips, trips and falls it can sound so trivial but the consequences, can be enormous.

GAVAN: Sport was my life.

GAVAN: I think I captained and coached twelve premierships. I represented the Gold Coast. I represented Queensland.

GAVAN: And I think I probably had another 20 years of coaching in front of me if everything had gone to plan.

GAVAN: Yeah in 1994, I had a workplace incident which left me like this.

GAVAN: I had the accident at the age of 36.

GAVAN: About 18 months I suppose I was involved in the hospitality game...

GAVAN: No doubt the industry of me meeting people and being with people is where I belonged.

GAVAN: I really did like the life I was leading, but that was taken away...

GAVAN: So when I got up that morning knowing that I only had to go to work for half an hour, I thought; fantastic, I'll get in there, get everything organised, get home, enjoy the day.

GAVAN: I remember going in and everything was going so fine and then complaints started to happen.

GAVAN: Ahh and then everything just went wrong.

GAVAN: The person who was supposed to do the beer lines went to do another job.

GAVAN: So I thought okay, I'll go and check it myself.

GAVAN: Outside the cold room there's usually a little rubber mat because there's always water seepage coming out from the cold room.

GAVAN: So that little rubber mat, on the day, was actually turned up at both ends.

GAVAN: Me, running around, rushing around trying to make sure that everyone was happy just tripped on the rubber mat.

GAVAN: I was falling inside the cold room where the keg was.

GAVAN: The first thing you do is try to grab something so you don't hit the deck.

GAVAN: I grabbed hold of the keg that was full of alkaline and also still full of gas. One hand went on the keg. My other hand went on the beer plunger which is on the keg. Then when you do push that plunger down it releases whatever's in that keg...

GAVAN: Then the alkaline proceeded, still full of gas coming out of the keg, and just proceeded to go straight into both eyes...which instantly just sent me totally blind.

GAVAN: I reckon the first thing that really initially hit me was the pain.

GAVAN: Like it was just having fireballs.

GAVAN: And then having screaming and yelling and staff coming in and saying, he's in trouble, he's in trouble. He's in massive trouble. Quick got to get him into the shower. I knew then that I'm in drastic trouble.

GAVAN: The burning sensation was just...out of this street, honestly, how bad it was. And then...

LUKE: There was no ambulance available...they had to drive him up.

JOEL: All the way to Brisbane hospital. Umm...and all the alkaline eating away at his eyes I suppose and throwing up the whole way just from the pain of it.

GAVAN: The head was just throbbing like someone hit me with an axe.

GAVAN: I really did think my head was going to blow apart.

GAVAN: And no-one telling you what's going on. It was horrific.

GAVAN: Am I ever going to see those two kids again. That's what got me through it.


PROFESSOR HIRST: Gavan arrived and I had already been warned by the ophthalmologist referring him that he did have a serious injury.

GAVAN: Outside the hospital is this professor waiting for you, to put myself into a wheelchair so he could wheel me straight into his rooms. I'm thinking this is not good.

PROFESSOR HIRST: He was in shock. And I have to say I was somewhat shocked by the severity of his injury.

PROFESSOR HIRST: He was clinging onto the hope that this was all going to be alright.

GAVAN: Mr McGuane, he said, You're in big trouble. You're going to lose one eye for the rest of your life and he said you're ninety-nine per cent chance of losing your other eye for the rest of your life.

PROFESSOR HIRST: So that's a pretty stark prospect for someone who literally, seconds before the injury, was seeing perfectly.

LUKE: And I still remember we were waiting to go into the hospital, ahhhh, into his room, and mum just warned us. She said...

JOEL: Dad really wanted to see you because unfortunately it might be the last time he might be able to see ya, umm because his eyesight, he's had an accident at work and over the next few days he might lose it completely.

LUKE: Dad's eyes are blue at the moment, they're not brown anymore. Umm, just try not act too shocked when you see him.

JOEL: I'll never forget walking in actually just, seeing him.

LUKE: They pulled the curtain back and we saw him and his eyes were actually like a fluoro blue. Like a, like scary blue. I was only six years old and I was pretty freaked out to see my dad's eyes like that and it was, it was pretty difficult.

JOEL: Still at that age you just don't realise how bad the situation is. You think they might be able to wash it out and things will get better. And it's not till the weeks go by and, you know, it starts to sink in that you realise that umm this is permanent.

LUKE: I think when I got home; I was a pretty shattered young kid.

LUKE: I just thought well is he going to be able to play cricket with is in the backyard. Is he going to be able to kick the football with us? Is he still going to coach football like he could, he can't see the football anymore.

JOEL: So yeah, it was something you don't forget.

GAVAN: I went to work for half and hour ...and I was in there for 57 days.

LUKE: The three months that he was in hospital was a really, really tough time for him.

GAVAN: Ah yeh, the hospital was a dungeon at the time I thought. I just lay there and...watching...ah people come in and looking at me as though I was a freak.

LUKE: He wouldn't really let us come and see him, because he didn't want us to see him suffer.

GAVAN: But I didn't really want to keep them in that environment.

GAVAN: The bottom line with them is you want to see them happy. They wouldn't have been happy being in there. So yeah, no, I got them out of there pretty quick.

PROFESSOR HIRST: Gavan and his family have had to accept a lot of changes in their lives. From being fully sighted and the breadwinner for the family, overnight, in a few seconds, he's changed to being dependent. Not able to earn a living. Losing his self-respect. Wondering whether life is worth living.

JOEL: Maybe the first ten years, there were times when I looked at dad and you sort of take a deep breath and you see him struggling to do something.

LUKE: He'd walk into things. He'd hurt himself, but he'd just pretend it didn't hurt and he'd be angry or frustrated but then he'd just block it out and keep walking. And umm I think that's what I remember most as a kid that he just wouldn't let his pride go. And he wouldn't, he'd just refuse to show... that he was, that he couldn't see.

PROFESSOR HIRST: I think initially he went through all the grieving reactions that people do when they lose someone beloved or they lose something important to them.

GAVAN: It's been pretty hard, let me tell ya. Not being able to go and do what you wanted to do to make your life better.

LUKE: There's a lot of jobs he can't do, including probably the thing he loves the most and that's coaching football.

GAVAN: I remember Professor Hirst telling me that.. that I'll be able to tell night from day and that's it, and I thought, I want more than that please.

GAVAN: And then thankfully to him that I did restore some of my sight.

GAVAN: And now I'd probably rate myself as inside darkness and that sort of thing, very, very limited. Outside on a bright sunny day, without wearing a contact lens that I do wear now, I'd say probably twenty per cent.

GAVAN: Like I'd sit a metre away from television now, I probably see about eighty percent of what you can see a hundred percent of, from sitting anywhere.

GAVAN: I read a newspaper with a monocle, it's called. But the monocle must be right on the paper so it blows it up to probably ten times the size of what it really is.

GAVAN: For me now to go to a game of football, I must more or less sit still and I use binoculars.

GAVAN: I must be sitting there with binoculars up to my eyes for say sometimes four hours of a day. And I mean that's no... no easy feat.

PROFESSOR HIRST: It is not unknown for people with such a severe eye condition, where their vision has gone from perfect to virtually blind in such a quick time, some of these people consider suicide.

GAVAN: I had morbid thoughts. I reckon I still have morbid thoughts. And I reckon if I do lose the eyesight for total, I really don't know what I'll do.

JOEL: All the professors and everything have told him that they don't know how he actually can see. So it wouldn't take much to lose it.

GAVAN: If the right preventions had been used, I wouldn't be sitting here like this now.

VICKI: In the case of Gavin's injury there was a number of contributing factors, there was water on the floor, the mat was not in a good state of repair. It had sides curled up. Gavan was rushing at the time...

VICKI: They're the sort of things that build up and they make the opportunity for an injury and unfortunately for Gavin that was the ultimate result.

GAVAN: If I'd have taken that few minutes longer just to make sure the safety was there, to make sure everything was right, I mightn't be in this position.

VICKI: Think about what it is you do and don't put yourself at risk just to get something there five seconds faster than it would have been.

GAVAN: It is just so important that safety is taken as number one. Not as just something that you want to talk about after the incident happens. You make sure that's in place before anything starts.

VICKI: There are a lot of issues in this, this industry, but I do believe the hospitality industry is working hard to try and minimise....the injuries that they have.

VICKI: The employers can take a number of ways to reduce injuries in the workplace.

VICKI: The employer needs to put in systems of work, they need to oversee that the staff are following those systems of work.

VICKI: The main thing is to communicate with their staff, to identify the risks.

VICKI: If you haven't identified them at the start then you can't manage them.

VICKI: And employees can take precautions as well. They can ensure that they have been provided with the information they need to do their job.

VICKI: They need to follow their procedures and make sure that they wear the PPE that's provided for them.

VICKI: They need to comply with the safety instructions and they also need not to put any of their other workers at risk.

VICKI: If they see something that's unsafe they need to let their employer know about it

JOEL: And if you haven't done it right it's going to affect not only you, it's going to affect your family and your friends.

GAVAN: Every day's a challenge. Every day you wake up the first thing I do is look to that window at the side of my bed to see whether there's light coming in. If there's light coming in, which there has been every day since, it's been magnificent.

JOEL: It's taken a long time for him to get over it, you know, he's never, ever going to get over it. But I think he's got over it to the extent where he can sort of live some sort of life.

GAVAN: I don't think I would have survived without having a little bit of eyesight....Being able to see the family and kids.

LUKE: I could have lost him; I could have lost him forever.

GAVAN: I think of it all the time. How my children's life would be if they did receive the phone call...that I didn't come home from the job sixteen years ago...that...would be a horrific thing for my family to hear, that I couldn't come home because of a work accident.

JOEL: It took a lot of years to happen but we just move on now, as a normal family as much as we possibly can. I think we do a pretty good job at it.

GAVAN: And I know for sure that those children are well and truly on the road to success. And that wouldn't have happened if I'm not here.

[End of transcript]