Getting worked up about young worker safety

Jamie Hall
The launch of our new young worker campaign, Worked Up, has given me the opportunity to reflect on some of the challenges that young workers face as they join the workforce. It also has me thinking about my own experiences as a young worker, oh so many years ago, and how some of these were less than safe. In particular, I think back to a temporary job I had one summer repointing, which consisted of hand-chiseling old mortar from between the bricks of a house before refilling with new mortar. It was a job I took because my usual summer employer was on strike and I needed to earn money for the coming school year.

To get at the bricks higher up, I used scaffolding. Eventually though, I reached a point that the scaffolding just wasn't high enough. My boss's solution was to nail together some two by fours that he found lying around the job site and use these to extend the scaffolding. There I was, 25 feet off the ground, working without fall protection on a contraption that could best be described as rickety. There were many times during that time that I was scared. Any gust of wind and I would immediately do a quick scan for something to grab to steady myself to keep from falling. 

Now, looking back, I realize just how lucky I was to escape getting seriously injured that summer. That experience has also helped me better understand the factors that make young workers vulnerable to injuries at work. Despite the fear I felt as a young worker, my need for a job trumped my safety and I didn't fully comprehend my risk of injury. It also never occurred to me to express my concerns or fears to my boss; I had a job to do and a pay cheque waiting at the end that I really didn't want to jeopardize. 

Unfortunately, our Worked Up campaign has revealed that young workers are still willing to take on an unacceptable level of risk to get a job, the same way I was many years ago.  For this campaign, SAFE Work Manitoba placed ads for fictional jobs aimed at young people that offered high pay for high-risk work. Many of the young people interviewed stated that they were willing to take on risks such as working alone, working with hazardous materials and risk injury in the process. Many also spoke of past injuries that they had sustained, but had never reported and some went as far as to blame themselves for getting injured at work. Most validated the research that shows that young workers will not speak up about the hazards they face at work.

So, what can we do about this? As an employer, with this insight, it is no longer enough to provide workers a safety orientation, training and to ensure that your young workers have the proper PPE. With this insight, employers now need to make it abundantly clear to young workers that safety is a job expectation and that not asking questions about safety will place their employment in jeopardy.  A young worker will respond differently when his or her supervisor says "You have been here a few hours or days and you have not raised a single safety question or concern. This makes me question whether you are really serious about this job."

As parents, we know to have all the important "talks" with our kids about responsible drinking, drug use, texting and driving, but what about the discussion about safe work and the importance of speaking up and refusing to do work that is unsafe? This is a conversation that will educate your kids about your expectations and what their expectations should be.  They need to know that they should work in a job where the employer cares about their safety, and when this is true, talking about safety is not a concern, but an expectation.

Lastly, if you're a young worker, I urge you to use your safety voice at work and encourage your co-workers to do the same. Chances are, your employer will see this as showing initiative and the result will be positive. And if they don't see it as a positive, is that really the place you want to be working?