High risk of injury for young workers prompts B.C. schools and students to act

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Twenty-nine young workers died on the job in B.C. between 2010 and 2014. And, according to WorkSafeBC, young workers, people age 25 and under, are more likely than any other age group to be injured on the job.

To raise awareness about these risks for young workers, John Decaire, a social studies teacher at Cariboo Hill Secondary in Burnaby, piloted a project last year aimed at teaching students about their rights at work. After a brief survey of his students showed that half of them worked, he created a school-wide approach.

This year, the pilot project has expanded to 120 schools -- a joint partnership of B.C. Federation of Labour, B.C. Teachers' Federation, B.C. Labour Heritage Centre and WorkSafeBC. It has been endorsed by CUPE B.C., B.C. Schools Trustees' Association and B.C. Principals' and Vice-Principals' Association.

One of those schools is Killarney Secondary, an overcrowded school of 2,000 in East Vancouver. Social Justice 12 students "took over" the morning announcements for the week before April 28, the National Day of Mourning, sharing stats about rates of young worker injury and death and ways young people could advocate for themselves on the job.

On the day itself, they hosted a Day of Mourning table in the loud and busy cafeteria. Grade 12 students Latio Yata, Joanna Zhao and Sonja Pinto handed out stickers to students and staff, volunteering their lunch hours to raise awareness about young worker safety.

Students had recently seen a video produced by WorksafeBC that told the story of 19-year-old Matthew Bowcott, who suffered third-degree burns after hot oil spilled on him.

Bowcott's manager had cut his and nother kitchen worker's hours in order to save on labour costs, forcing them to complete their clean up routine at high speed and out of order. When Bowcott' went to empty the deep fryer, the 350 degree oil hadn't had time to cool. He slipped on a floor that had been mopped before the fry station was cleaned. 

Latio Yata knows intimately the importance of worker safety. His dad, a security guard, broke his back at work. "Knowing that 122 people died last year alone at work is pretty shocking, 'cause my dad could have been one of those people."

Latio worked at a restaurant when he was 16, without Foodsafe certification or any safety training. "You're around stuff that might spill all the time, you never know, you could be carrying something and slip and hurt your back."

Pinto worked in a grocery store and knew how easy it was to get injured on the job. "You can see in the back it's slippery and there's things you need to watch out for, things that could hurt you."

Benita Prado knew too well how vulnerable workers are.

"There was a man my father worked with, he was crushed by a boulder in 2013, my dad was his friend and co-worker. It's so important you're safe on the job, really safe. A wrench fell 20 feet onto my dad's head on the worksite once, but he was wearing a helmet, which he wasn't going to originally. He would have died," said Prado.

Decaire and the International Day of Mourning Schools project aims to have these programs in place in every high school, eventually, just like Remembrance Day. The students have vowed to carry the message of worker safety to their younger siblings and with co-workers in their future jobs and careers.

One of the students mused aloud as they were packing up their display, "I guess this is why we need unions."


Sarah Beuhler is an activist campaigner who runs issue-based digital campaigns for non-profits and unions. She was the Campaign Manager for the 2014 COPE municipal election campaign. She is currently rabble's B.C. Development manager.

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