Worker's family believes it was a 'suicide' caused by workplace harm
The family of an Adelaide worker whose death has been plagued by controversy and intrigue has participated in recent court proceedings in the hope of finally finding out whether the fatal incident was work-related.
Since 2018, the family of Peter Howard has been puzzled about his unexpected death outside work. Now, as a coronial inquest takes place, the family hopes to get “legitimate answers” about his death which they say followed years of “relentless” workplace bullying.
ABC News reported that Howard died in a car fire outside the Orora packaging plant in Athol Park, Adelaide, in August 2018.
“Peter was a really lovely, kind and gentle soul … [who] adored his family,” Howard’s sister, Carmel Schwartz, recalled of her brother’s character, according to ABC News.
Alleged bullying in the workplace
For Howard’s family, the man’s death was a suicide, yet, the recent inquest said the court would not continue under that “assumption,” according to ABC News.
“Peter was in a good place in his marriage and in his family, financially was quite settled, and it just came out of the blue,” Schwartz said. “Not any one of us thought he would make the decision that he did.”
ABC News reported that the Coroner’s Court heard that Howard kept diaries for almost two decades, detailing events of workplace bullying at the Orora packaging factory.
It further said that the claims of workplace bullying included being “screamed at” by his workmates, called names, spoken in a sarcastic tone, had machinery interfered with, and repeatedly poked in the ribs.
Howard’s diary also revealed an incident where chili flakes were put into his unattended water bottle. Nonetheless, the court heard that the workmate responsible for the incident personally apologised to Howard after being reported to the management.
“He suffered absolute humiliation at work, and I don’t understand why there hasn’t been any prosecution and we’re here today to try to seek some answers,” Schwartz told ABC News.
“I actually think workplace bullying is rife in Australia … and I think it should be stamped out and there should be better procedures in place to help people appropriately deal with it,” she added.
‘Suicide’ not an assumption in court
According to ABC News, the counsel assisting the coroner, Peter Longson, said that Howard attended work on the morning of his death and then left the site to buy plastic fuel containers. He was later seen on a CCTV filling at a nearby fuel station.
The news outlet also said that the court heard “co-workers reported hearing a loud explosion outside the Orora site at approximately 9:20 am that morning.”
While Longson recognized that there are assumptions that Howard took his own life, he said that the premise is not based on anything but only a regular examination of the vehicle, ABC News said.
“There was no note, no text message, no phone call … from Mr. Howard that indicated he intended on taking his own life,” Longson said, according to ABC News.
“This inquest will not commence on the assumption that Mr. Howard took his own life … [because] if that assumption is wrong, any findings this court makes will be flawed,” he added.
If the inquest was to find that Howard took his own life, Longson said that such would be made on the evidence, ABC News reported.
The news outlet also noted that Howard’s doctor for almost 30 years, Barry Nicholson, gave evidence that he had known Howard to suffer from anxiety but never appeared to be at risk of suicide.
“I believe he had a personality where he … was a very sensitive person,” Nicholson said, based on ABC News. “I never saw him as … having any danger to himself or others.”
Meanwhile, Howard’s employer Orora extended its sympathies to the worker’s family and emphasized that the factory takes its workers’ wellbeing “extremely seriously,” the news outlet said.
“The company continues to invest in safety training, including comprehensive programs for identifying and responding to bullying and supporting the mental and physical health of our people,” Orora’s spokesperson said according to ABC News. “Orora does not tolerate any form of unsafe work practices.”
Inquest expected to adjourn
A sudden turn of events happened as ABC News recently reported that Howard’s family sought to adjourn the inquest because of compensation concerns.
During the proceeding, Longson said that one possible finding would be that Howard did not intend for his vehicle to explode “at that location, at that time,” ABC News reported.
The compensation payout to Howard’s wife could be at risk if the inquest continues and the death is ruled an accident.
“Mrs. Howard has achieved a situation, as it currently is, that there is a recognition [her husband] was injured in the workplace, and that contributed to his death,” Longson said during the proceeding.
“From Mrs. Howard’s perspective … I cannot see the continuation of this inquest being of any benefit to the family, and there is a real possibility that Your Honour may make a finding that takes back from the position that they’re currently in,” he added.
According to ABC News, the inquest is anticipated to hear evidence from two more witnesses before the adjournment, which still has no final date.