Keeping teenagers alive on the job: Provincial ad campaign emphasizes workplace safety

EDMONTON - For 16-year-old Mitchell Tanner, last summer's full-time gig at Rona was the real deal.

"Mitchie had had jobs before, but this was his first actual job,'" said Marjorie Adams, the young man's aunt.

"He was really excited."

The Grade 10 student was working only his second shift as a foot soldier in the lumberyard when he hopped on a forklift driven by one of his friends and co-workers. The 2,300-kilogram machine, not meant to carry passengers, tipped over and crushed him.

By the time paramedics arrived , he was dead.

The teenager's death on June 7 was one of 23 workplace deaths this year, compared to 25 for this same time last year. The total number of deaths for all of 2007 was 47.

"He was just being a kid," Adams said softly, the pain evident in her voice.

Adams' husband, Kim, a longtime welder by trade, shook his head when he heard the news.

He had made his own mistakes early in his career. "He's 40-something years old; he's been doing it forever," said Adams, then paused.

"But when you're young and stupid, you just don't understand safety."

An advertising campaign launched this week is intended to drive that message home, reminding teenagers in the workforce that injuries and fatalities can be moments away.

Typically, autumn is a more hazardous time for workers, especially those in the oil and gas industry.

"Generally, activity increases when companies are trying to wrap up before winter sets in," Employment and Immigration spokesman Barrie Harrison.

"There's a lot of machinery being moved prior to frost."

The online safety campaign -- at -- focuses particularly on workers between the ages of 15 and 19.

It has come under attack from critics who say the online spots, each one depicting a gory on-the-job accident that is seemingly the fault of a worker's carelessness, misses the mark.

"Accidents are not caused by one action," Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said.

"Injuries are caused by a series of poor decisions by both the employer and worker.

"Lack of training, rushed pace of work, and cutting safety corners lead to injuries -- a point completely missed by these ads."

Alberta Employment and Immigration Minister Hector Goudreau said the campaign is meant to educate and protect teenagers on the job, whom he described as "the most vulnerable" segment of the workforce.

They're also growing fast, especially in Alberta's still thriving economy.

Between 1998 and 2007, the number of 15- to 19-year-olds employed in the province grew almost 23 per cent.

In the past five years, 11 in that age group died in workplace fatalities, a number which includes two deaths in 2008; a 19-year-old oil rig worker in Provost and Mitchell Tanner.

"We want to get to young workers when they're first entering the workforce so that they understand that they're not invincible, for starters," Harrison said.

"We also want to let them know they have the right -- some would say the responsibility and the obligation -- to refuse unsafe work.

"We want to instil a culture that will stay with them for their entire working life."

The construction and construction trades industry, where approximately 10 per cent of young workers are employed, remains the most dangerous, with most accidents caused by slips, trips and falls.

"Twenty years ago, when it was make as much money as you can and damn the consequences, Alberta's construction industry's lost-time claim rate was 20 times what it is today," Harrison said.

"Today, there's much more of a feeling of, yes make as much money as you can, but it's even more important that everyone stays safe and goes home at the end of the day.

"There's no point in having a big paycheque if you're not around to enjoy it."

Workplace accident numbers overall, which are compiled by the Workers' Compensation Board, have been declining in recent years.

So far this year, about 135,500 claims have been registered with the WCB, compared to 175,297 for all of 2007 and 181,159 for 2006.

Harrison said some of the credit for the decline goes to the Alberta Construction Safety Association, which was established 20 years ago to address the problem.

Since then, the association has devoted itself to improving workplace health and safety through education and training, both on-site and in the classroom.

In 1996, about 4,500 workers went through some form of training program with the association, it's closer to 100,000 today.

That number includes high school students who may be pondering a career in construction.

The association goes into schools to make presentations, talking to students -- particularly those in Grade 12 -- about things such as hazard assessments and proper tool usage.

"We want to talk to them before they finish school so they're prepared before they get to the job site," said Robin Kotyk, the association's chief operating officer .

"It's not just about how much money am I going to make, it's about what kind of protective equipment will I need, what kind of tools will I be operating and do I need any special training, those kinds of things."

This fall, the association broadened its scope, introducing a program aimed and owners and CEOs of companies.

"It's about letting them know that if something happens on your job site, you're going to be held responsible," Kotyk said.

"It's about developing the safety culture of the organization."

Marjorie Adams just wants to know that something positive ultimately can come from her nephew's death.

"We all miss him, you know," she said.

"He was such a wonderful kid."

Edmonton Journal, Sat Nov 1 2008
Byline: Jamie Hall

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