Photo by Chung Chow
Young workers are the most likely to be injured on the job, according to WorkSafeBC’s Trudi Rondou.
“You can look at the stats on paper; on average, 14 young workers are seriously injured every week in BC. The reality is, that’s half a classroom full of young people every week,” she says. That is why WorkSafe has a new two-pronged approach to young worker safety.
The first prong of the program educates the young workers.
Jack Thomas, 19, is part of that program. He talks to other young workers about his summer job, between Grade 11 and 12 when he 17.
“Sept. 4, 2015, I was working at my recycling job and I was doing some conveyor belt work. It turned on while I was working with it. It tore my right arm off at the elbow. I was in the hospital six days, then at the rehab centre for just under a month. I would kill to have at least my elbow back,” he says.
WorkSafe’s Rondou says in most cases, young workers had a feeling something was wrong and didn’t seem quite right.
“So we wanted to focus on that empowerment. Listen to your gut,” says Rondou.
Thomas says he wished he hadn’t told himself “that it was ok to do something when I knew it wasn’t safe. I would have taken a step back and asked myself if it was worth it.
I wish I could have just told myself that it was ok to say no to my boss.”
If something at work is dangerous, first speak with your boss. If that doesn’t work, phone WorkSafe BC anonymously, she says.
“Our officers are experts at keeping that anonymity,” says Rondou.
The second prong in the campaign tasks employers with the responsibility to teach and keep teaching young workers how to do their job safely from the get-go, and to make it part of the work attitude each day.
WorkSafeBC looked for companies to work with.
“We really wanted employers who were role models and industries where young people were employed.” Rondou says.
Clint Mahlman is executive VP and COO for Richmond-headquartered London Drugs.
“My role is to remind owners and managers that it doesn’t happen on its own.” Mahlman says. “With young workers, it’s not going to be the first question they ask. We need to make this part of the daily conversation about how work is conducted in a safe manner.”
Mahlman also says safety has to become a value, and not just an expectation that workers are safe.
Why London Drugs?
When Rondou discovered that London Drugs had a practice of sending letters to young workers’ parents, letting them know what the chain is doing for their kids’ safety, she says she thought it was “a wonderful way to go above and beyond.”
“Workplace safety doesn’t just happen on its own,” says Mahlman.
Safety education for young workers is part of Rondou’s job as WorkSafeBC’s Senior Manager for Industry and Labour Services.
It is also a job she cares about personally; Rondou has two kids of her own new to the workforce.
Mahlman too has his heart in the program.
“I’ve got kids of my own, so I’m very sensitive to the safety issues that can impact young workers,” he says.
Mahlman also knows too well what can happen when you’re green.
“Working in a saw mill, it was ‘Here’s your tools, boys. Go clean up.’ My hand got pulled into a chain. I had a hand-crush injury. I very quickly saw that no one told me about lock-out procedures,” he says.
A serious injury changes the lives of more than just the young worker.
“I put my mom through quite a bit. I wouldn’t be here without her,” says Thomas.
Consequently, Mahlman suggests a third prong to the program.
“Safety should be part of daily conversation with parents, aunts and uncles. You need to have kitchen table conversations where you ask, ‘What is your employer saying about safety?’”
“Make sure what you’re doing is safe and if it isn’t safe you don’t have to do it,” Thomas says.
The entire corporate sector needs to up its game, Mahlman says.
“It’s often not the obvious large, industrial accidents,” he says. “We forget the service industry is the largest employer in BC, and they employ young workers. There are other dangers that can be just as devastating, whether it be scalding, slip and fall in a restaurant, or cut injuries in grocery retail, or servers that slip.”
We have to change our thinking, he says, for instance, we should stop thinking of cuts as a normal part of the food service industry.
After his workplace injury, how is Thomas doing today?
“Words can’t describe how happy I am to be learning and doing what I love.”
While he’d “give anything to have my arm back,” he says he had to relearn how to drum, how to play the bass, cook food, drive, write.
“I was right handed before so had to learn to write with my left. I just relearned how to tie my shoes and cut my nails and it’s been two years.”
Rondou says of those 14 young workers injured every week in BC, “these are not cuts and bruises. These are life-alterning injuries.”
“People should have a high expectation of returning home safely and not injured,” says Mahlman.
Thomas now knows how he would have done things differently.
“Workers everywhere need to know when it’s ok to say no. If I can help save one life, one broken hand, one limb or anything, I am happy with that.”