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Young worker safety: a family matter

I picked up my son from work a recent afternoon. He's home from university, helping at one of the big family farms in our neighbourhood. His jobs cover everything from rounding up a wayward cow and calf, to clearing brush, to building cement walls and helping with renovations on a rental house. Last night, he climbs into the car sweaty and grubby.

"So, what were you doing today?" I ask.

"Tearing out insulation and putting in new stuff."

"What kind of insulation?" I ask.

"Dirty," he says. "There was mouse poop everywhere!"

We have a talk about hantavirus which can be caused by exposure to mouse droppings. Turns out the house where he was working was well-ventilated, with the windows wide open and good airflow. Then I'm back to the insulation. With asbestos on my mind, I ask him how old the house is. He doesn't know, but the insulation is fibreglass pink. We talk some more about the importance of ventilation, and PPE. He wears gloves, but agrees a mask might be a good idea. (This was his last day on that particular task, thankfully).

I have been talking safety with my two boys -- now in their early 20s -- since they were old enough to clear the table. I know from experience it needs to be delivered in small doses, or else the eye-rolling will begin. Parents can't protect their children from the hazards at work. But it's my great hope that we can help.

Over the summer months, college-age students, like my sons, and high school students head into the workforce to earn some money. The Ontario Ministry of Labour (MOL) tells us, workers new to their job, including young workers, are three times more likely to be injured in the first month than at any other time. They're also frequently doing the kind of work that involves physical tasks, tools, equipment and vehicles that place them at greater risk.

There are fantastic resources in every province promoting young worker safety. Look for the new campaign from Parachute Canada, www.safe4life.work, and watch out for new materials this month from Ontario's Workplace Safety and Prevention Services under their program "Bring Safety Home."

But maybe one of the best things we can do as parents is just to talk to our kids about their work. As we all know, the car is a great place to chat with teenagers and young adults because no one has to make eye contact. Here are some questions the MOL suggests parents can ask:

  • *What do you normally do at work?
  • *Do you climb or work at heights?
  • *Do you lift and carry heavy objects?
  • *Has your employer provided workplace safety orientation training and information?
  • *Do you know what protective equipment to wear and how to use it?
  • *Do you work with chemicals? Have you been trained in their proper use?
  • *Are you tired at work? (Full-time school, homework, social life and work together can cause fatigue, increasing the risk of injury at work and while driving.)
  • *Does your supervisor work near you?
  • *Does your supervisor provide on-the-job safety feedback?
  • *Do you feel you can report safety concerns to your supervisor?
  • *Do you know how to report workplace injuries?
  • *Do you know about your rights and obligations under Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act?

When you're tuned in to safety, as all of us in the health and safety world are, you see hazards everywhere. We want to wrap our kids in bubble wrap a foot thick, and hover just behind them through every minute of their work day. We can't. But what we can do is educate ourselves and keep trying to start those conversations.

Susan Haldane

Susan Haldane manages marketing and communication for Threads of Life, the association for workplace tragedy family support. Threads of Life brings hope and healing to Canadian families who have been affected by a workplace fatality, life-altering injury or occupational disease. It is a national charity connecting more than 2,400 family members through one-on-one peer support, links to community support services, and the opportunity to take action to help prevent similar tragedies to other families. Visit www.threadsoflife.ca for more information.
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