WARNING: Graphic content warning
Workers at a Northland freezing works have been left traumatised after an elderly co-worker was fatally pierced by his work knife while dealing with a carcass before collapsing on the shop floor drenched in blood.
The victim was Rangipokia “Paul” Wharehoka, 70, originally of Taranaki, remembered as a talented rugby player and a friendly colleague.
He died at Affco Moerewa on Thursday night in what the company has described as a “freak accident”.
WorkSafe has launched an investigation.
A co-worker has recounted to the Herald how Wharehoka was injured, the desperate attempts to stem his bleeding, and how colleagues comforted the dying man as his condition deteriorated.
“He was working on the stand when he suddenly lost control of his knife. He went to catch it and the blade pierced his lower abdomen. It took the full brunt of the blade,” he said.
“He carried on working without noticing how severe it was. It wasn’t until he started staggering away from his workstation and he was trying to go up the stairs to seek help that he collapsed.
“One of the workers saw him collapse and tried to help him up. He got him up a couple more steps and then I saw him collapse a second time.”
Another worker stopped the production line.
“We laid him down. I lifted his apron up and both of his legs were saturated with blood.
“I stayed there and I kept talking to him. I wanted him to remain calm. I could see everything unfolding right before my eyes,” the co-worker said.
“He was getting cold, starting to shiver. He was gasping for air. The turning point for me was when I saw his eyes become fixed.”
Police said they were notified of the incident at 9.46pm on Thursday and assisted ambulance services on the scene.
Officers found a man had died on the premises, “apparently due to an accident”, a police spokesman told the Herald.
“It was just traumatic,” the co-worker said.
“He had been with us for eight months. He came up from Taranaki, where he played 99 games for Taranaki back in the day.
“We got on well. We got on like a house on fire. We were good mates.
“We used to have lunch together, we shared our food, our rugby experiences and stuff. It was just a good connection with the old boy kind of a thing. We had a lot of respect for each other, he always took the time to sharpen my knife for me.”
The Taranaki Bulls rugby team remembered Wharehoka on social media, expressing its “deepest condolences to the Wharehoka whānau after the tragic passing”.
The AFFCo meatworks at Moerewa. Photo / Mike Barrington
“A bruising midfielder from South Taranaki, Paul played 99 games in the Amber and Black and was a key member of the dominant Hāwera sides. RIP.”
Ambulance paramedics arrived and tried to save Wharehoka but he died at the scene.
Plant workers performed a haka as his body was moved from an ambulance into a hearse.
“We sent him off with a good haka, you know, a real, traditional haka. Then a local kaumatua (elder) came and blessed us.”
When workers returned the following day, the shop floor was covered in a pool of blood, the co-worker claimed.
“The eerie thing for me was that everything had stopped suddenly [and remained]. The [emergency stop button] was still flashing when I got in there, [WorkSafe] came in and investigated but nothing was touched.”
The employee said in his opinion, the incident raised questions about accountability and workplace health and safety.
“A man died on our floor. Someone’s got to be accountable,” he said.
“It was an accident that should not have happened,” he believed.
Affco chief executive Nigel Stevens said Wharehoka was a valued employee.
“This appears to be a freak accident where he has accidentally wounded himself with his knife. Fortunately, we have comprehensive video footage of the incident which we have provided to the police and WorkSafe that reduces any speculation as to the nature and cause of the incident.
“In the meantime, our immediate priority is continuing to provide support to the family and co-workers.”
Stevens said Wharehoka was wearing all prescribed PPE, “which was consistent with industry norm and practice for the role.
“In addition to working with police and WorkSafe, we have arranged an independent investigation to determine if there was anything that made this incident preventable or that we, or the wider NZ Meat industry, can do differently in the future.”
A spokesman for WorkSafe said the watchdog had opened an investigation. They couldn’t comment further while the investigation was under way. The agency had a year to complete inquiries.
Raphael Franks is an Auckland-based reporter who covers breaking news. He joined the Herald as a Te Rito cadet in 2022.
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