Target: Zero fatalities

Healthy Workplace Month spotlights young workers

Sarah Wheelan knew it wasn’t safe. But it was her first day on the job, working part-time as a teenager behind a busy deli counter at a supermarket in small-town Ontario.

Her job was to operate slicing machines that cut meat and cheese for customers. The standard practice was to clean the machines between use but the cleaning method made alarm bells go off in her head.

“They wanted me to hold my hand to a spinning blade, where with one false move I could slice my hand, slice off one or more of my fingers or possibly cut my wrist,” she said. “This was faster than taking the machine apart safely and actually washing the blade the way we probably should have.”

The fact Wheelan, now a young worker ambassador with the Mississauga, Ont.,-based Industrial Accident Prevention Association (IAPA), didn’t lose a finger or worse was due more to luck than anything else. Sadly, her reaction was typical of many young workers.

“I didn’t want to come across as looking stupid, or that I couldn’t handle the pressure or couldn’t handle the responsibility,” she said. “So, basically, I would hold my bare hand against a spinning blade rather than confront my supervisor.”

It took her two months to work up the courage to confront that supervisor — a butcher — about the unsafe work.

“He looked at me like I was stupid. He told me that this was the nature of the job, and that new butchers coming into his line of work would often nick themselves or lose a finger,” said Wheelan, who quit a week later.

It’s the kind of story that leaves Steve Mahoney, chair of Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), shaking his head.

“If you lose a finger, that’s part of learning how to be a butcher? That’s a pretty ridiculous attitude,” he said. And it’s one the WSIB won’t tolerate.

“Frankly, when we see that kind of activity and that kind of attitude, we will go in and this man better be prepared for a very, very heavy Workwell audit, probably a fine and some educational material,” he said. “That’s just unacceptable. Would he take that risk with his own kid? We’ve got to put a stop to this.”

Mahoney made the comments at young worker awareness event in Markham, Ont., to kick off Healthy Workplace Month. The event brought together representatives from IAPA, the Ontario government, WSIB and the family of David Ellis, a teenager killed on the job in 1999. (See sidebar.) IAPA is putting the spotlight this year on the alarming injury and death rate of young workers.

Everyone has a role to play

The message they’re trying to get out to employers, and the general public, is simple: Zero workplace fatalities is the only acceptable number, and parents, workers and employers all have a role to play in protecting young workers.

While Mahoney said there has been progress in reducing the number of injuries, the number of fatalities is holding steady. In 2007, 101 workers were killed in Ontario. In 2006, there were 100 deaths — an average of about two per week.

“At our board meeting just a couple of weeks ago, we were told that there were 58 killed in the workplace up to that point. But how do you celebrate a number like 58, knowing full well that it’s likely we’re going to add to that number before the end of the year?” he said.

Employers have a very important role to play in eliminating injury and death for young workers, said Maureen Shaw, president and CEO of IAPA.

“They’re young and think they’re invincible. And they don’t want to create waves,” she said. “So it really falls very much to the employer, to the supervisors and managers to ensure health and safety is part of the corporate value system and integral to the business management system.”

Employers need to eliminate the culture that makes young people feel foolish or wimpy for wanting to ensure their safety. Workers who have been on the job for a long time can’t be allowed to have that attitude, and it’s up to employers and leaders to stamp it out, she said.

Mahoney pointed to other areas of society where that type of thinking is almost extinct.

“For my generation, it was commonplace to drink and drive and almost macho to do so. That attitude doesn’t exist on a broad scale anymore, in spite of the odd tragedy we have,” he said.

People are much more aware of the dangers of smoking than they used to be and kids don’t think twice about strapping on a helmet when they go for a bike ride, something unheard of not that long ago, he said.

“There’s lots of things we’ve done to change attitudes, and I don’t think we’ve done enough in health and safety, and that’s ultimately how we’re going to get to zero,” he said.

Is zero an unattainable goal?

The question of whether or not zero workplace fatalities or accidents are unrealistic goals is a question that makes Mahoney wince.

“If you say things like ‘Accidents happen and that’s just the way it is,’ what you’re really saying is that there’s nothing you could have done to prevent the incident that just occurred and it’s going to happen again,” he said. “That attitude is exactly the kind of attitude we’re working hard to change. Is zero easy? Absolutely not. But what goal do you want?”

There are plenty of examples across Ontario of companies that have gotten to zero, so he doesn’t buy the argument that some injuries and fatalities are inevitable. Bruce Power in Kincardine, Ont., which operates a nuclear generating station, recently passed 10 million hours without a lost-time injury, he said.

“Don’t tell me it can’t be done when you’ve got an industry like the nuclear power industry, potentially one of the more dangerous jobs you could ever do, achieving goals like that,” he said.

Bombardier is another employer that has been extremely successful recently, following many years of safety problems, he said.

Parents should talk to kids, employers

Parents shouldn’t be shy about talking safety with their children, said Mahoney.

“It’s about talking to your kids, sitting down and saying, ‘You realize the job you’re working in, whether it’s McDonald’s or a metal scrapyard, there are dangers out there,’” he said.

And they shouldn’t be shy about talking to their kids’ employers.

“There is nothing more horrific than the loss of a child. No parent can deal with this in any kind of normal way. Our kids are supposed to outlive us. It’s just mind boggling to think how you can ever, ever get over it. The only way is to stop it from happening,” he said.

Jessica's Challenge

Brother’s death spurs sister to act

Ten years ago, Jessica DiSabatino didn’t know or care about workplace safety. But it’s the only thing she’s been able to think about for the better part of the last decade.

That’s because her brother, 18-year-old David Ellis, was killed on his second day of work at an industrial bakery in Burlington, Ont., in 1999.

“Nine years ago, I lost my little brother and I lost a friend and I lost somebody who I think about every day,” said DiSabatino, vice-president of Our Youth at Work foundation, a group founded by her father. “I don’t know that a day will ever go by that I don’t think of my brother David and I don’t mourn his loss.”

She is an advocate for workplace safety because that’s the way her brother would have wanted it.

“I know that if my brother were here today, he would say to me, ‘Jess, you don’t need to stand around and have a boo-hoo party for me. Really. Let’s just make some changes.’ And I believe we can do that,” she said.

One of the changes she’s most passionate about, as a mother, is encouraging parents to talk to children about safety at work.

“I think we teach our kids to be polite, and not talk back to authority,” she said. “And in some circumstances that is good, but when it relates to safety it sort of backfires on us. So we have to teach young people that there’s a difference between being polite and standing up for yourself and keeping yourself safe.”

Canada should celebrate employers that take safety seriously, and more corporate leaders, managers, supervisors and workers need to step up and become champions of workplace safety. Universities, colleges, high schools and elementary schools should also have a safety curriculum, she said.

“When young workers are empowered with knowledge, that sort of shy nervous behaviour goes away,” she said. “I am convinced that the next generation is going to lead the way, and we’re going to help them get there.”

Her advice to young workers in unsafe jobs is simple: Quit.

“I tell young people all over the place, if you don’t feel like you can talk to your supervisor or if there is no supervisor, it’s not worth keeping that job,” she said. “It’s better that students make the decision just to quit or address it with their supervisor.”

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