Proper supervision, addressing power imbalances among solutions
In November 1994, my son Sean died in a workplace accident. He was working in a small industrial unit in Ontario that distributed undercoating spray to car dealerships. Sean was pouring a highly flammable chemical from one ungrounded drum to another when it ignited and exploded. Sean was not told that what he was doing was potentially dangerous, let alone lethal. He was killed on the third day of his part-time job — and he was just 19 years old.
At the time, injuries and deaths for 15- to 24-year-old workers in Ontario were almost double what they are now. Overall, young worker injury rates have also gone down all across Canada. It would be wonderful to credit such improvements to employer changes toward young and new workers. Indeed, many great employers have done just that. But even in Ontario, where young worker injuries are down more than anywhere else in Canada, only 23 per cent of young people say they receive safety training on the job, according to a 2009 study by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) in Toronto.
Another issue to consider is that young people who move from one province to another may be more likely to suffer an injury due to safety standards and workplace cultures that differ from those they have experienced. Every jurisdiction handles workplace safety differently — different legislation, awareness, enforcement and public education systems — as though each believes children will work in their home provinces forever. These days, that is anything but the case.
In Alberta and Saskatchewan, where young worker injuries are already higher than in other provinces, a new concern is emerging: young workers born after 1999 will soon be entering the job market in larger numbers than from the baby boomer era.
These “new-age boomers” are children of imported labour.
Immigrant workers have been attracted to Saskatchewan and Alberta in great numbers for years. They too produce children — not at 1.5 kids per family but at the rate of three or more. This combined large wave of inexperienced young people entering the workforce may also bring along cultural and language differences.
Meanwhile, other parts of the country face skilled labour shortages. Employers are hard pressed to retain existing workers, never mind attract new ones. It is in the best interest of employers to raise the bar of safety not only to protect new inexperienced workers in the West, but also to minimize attrition and improve retention in more satisfying workplace environments in other parts of Canada. The good news is employers can succeed on both fronts in a focused, progressive workplace culture.
More than 80 per cent of injuries to new and young workers occur when no supervisor is present, found the IWH study. The supervisor’s role is to guide a new worker’s learning, experience, productivity and commitment to safety and respect. Team leaders must maintain a constant presence in uncontrolled situations to make sure they get it straight.
Supervisors should function as mentors, not simply “bosses.” Lectures and manuals are less relevant as time progresses. If you ask teen workers a safety question, they will get an answer on their smartphones faster than you can finish the sentence. The question is, will it be the right one?
New workers need to learn what questions to ask and when to ask them. They will function better in a discovery process led by enlightened mentors who explore ideas and create personal experiences so knowledge is embedded, not just memorized. Not all supervisors are capable of learning such skills. If they are not, others should be assigned to mentor.
Perceived power comes in different forms, where one person has more or less of something than the next person. It is hard to speak up when you are on the wrong end of an imbalance of power. Power imbalances can be related to one or all of the following:
• job position, experience, age
• physical size/presence
• social and language skills, education
• group dynamics (cliques)
• gender norms (women in construction, male nurses)
• personality types (big, bold, quiet, passive)
• wealth, family status
• culture of origin, race, sexual orientation.
So does a shy, five foot two, 18-year-old, dark complexioned, Indo-Canadian young woman speak up without hesitation to ask a safety-related question of a six foot three, 200 pound, 45-year-old, Caucasian, university educated Canadian born male? Not easily. But if you think she might not ask the question for such reasons, you have work to do on your team’s understanding of how power imbalance creates physical as well as emotional risks.
A young worker’s safety depends on shared ownership of outcomes and values, in respectful and caring environments. My son Sean died within a culture that had not yet discovered what it cared about. And that, as much as any specific physical hazard, is what cost him his life.
Paul Kells is an internationally recognized expert on young worker safety and positive workplace culture change. He is a speaker and management consultant based in Halifax. He can be reached at (902) 489-9929.