John Higgins was one month into his first job, working at a recycling plant in Vancouver. He called himself “the definition of the eager young worker,” happy to take on any task given to him, aiming to please. His can-do spirit led to him operating the forklift – an activity usually reserved for more experienced and licensed workers.
Working without a licence didn't bother John, as no one had even mentioned that he needed one in the first place. But one day he lost control of the forklift, and it crushed him against another machine. Sixty five surgical staples, one less kidney, and multiple rods and screws in his back later, John can't lift heavy objects, and the constant pain makes long distance travel without a wheelchair impossible. John's story is tragic, but not unique. He is just one of the many young workers injured every year.
A recent survey released by the Association of Workplace Compensation Boards of Canada found that more than 50,700 young workers lost time from work from injuries suffered on the job in 2006 alone. Another 51 lost their lives to workplace injuries in the same year. And the real injury numbers are probably even higher because so many mishaps go unreported, says Dr Louis Francescutti, a veteran emergency room physician who teaches at the University of Alberta.
“I can tell you there are hundreds of thousands of injuries that are occurring across the country that don't make the media simply because they aren't spectacular enough,” Francescutti says. “Yet kids are losing arms and legs and being paralyzed and severely burned as a result of workplace mishaps.”
He adds that while this is not acceptable, it is tolerated. “If that many young people came down with meningitis in one year, you could rest assured we would be doing something about it. We have a crisis in this country when it comes to injuries.”
Many incidents of workplace injury recorded by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety revolve around stories beginning with 'I was afraid to wake up my boss'. "There were some jobs I didn't know how to do, but felt pretty incompetent having to ask,” says Len Hong, CCOHS president. Hong wishes more young people could get past these issues and understand that “certain parts of a job are not taught in school. Students are not taught enough on what can go wrong.”
Many young workers are unaware of their legal right to refuse work that's unsafe, says Jack Smith, president of the Canada Safety Council. Smith acknowledges that some companies may fire an employee who refuses to do a dangerous job they’re not qualified for, but he advises young workers who experience this to bring their situation to the attention of company executives. There are many companies that are simply unaware of federal policies regarding workplace safety, Smith says. He adds some employers may not spare enough time to thoroughly train their new workers in safety issues.
So what’s the solution for young people entering the workforce? Know your rights and be proactive. Hong advises young workers to ask for help and instruction and express concerns about unsafe work. The CCOHS operate a toll-free help line at 1-800-668-4284, where both employees and employers can ask workplace safety questions, and make complaints when conditions aren’t met. Hong acknowledges the current statistics and that “unfortunately many people that operate a business aren't aware of what they need to do.”
But he believes Canada is moving in a positive direction away from those grim trends. In Ontario, health and safety rights are now being taught in high schools. In British Columbia, laws have been passed requiring mandatory health and safety orientation for employees. Hong points to internal surveys showing that of businesses that call his help line, 70 percent enact sweeping changes to their workplace. He believes these efforts are vital, and that youth workplace injury rates will finally diminish once a majority of people understand “it should be a basic human right, to go to work, and then come home as safe as you left.” jp