Last year 125,000 Canadians aged 15 to 24 years old were injured on the job — a statistic Rob Ellis finds unacceptable.
The president of MySafeWork, a program that promotes safety in all industries, has campaigned for a safer workplace since his son's death from an incident on his second day on a job at a bakery in 1999. He was 18.
As part of a health and safety event at the College of Carpenters and Allied Trades (CCAT) in Toronto, Ellis spoke to about 60 Grade 12 students in the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP) who are preparing to start work in construction as first-year apprentices.
He encouraged the young workers to take jobs with "champion companies," firms that take health and safety seriously. Ellis told the apprentices it is important that they know their rights, including their right to refuse work when they think it might be unsafe.
The safety event at the CCAT included a panel of industry leaders.
George Gritziotis, Ontario's chief prevention officer, told the apprentices that they "can't be punished or fired" for refusing to do a task they believe is unsafe such as climbing several metres up a building or structure without a proper tie-off.
"It's the law that you have training by the appropriate training provider...approved by the Ministry of Labour," he said.
Dan Fleming, director of occupational health and safety with EllisDon, said that regardless of the size of the employer or the quality of its safety program, every worker has to take personal responsibility for working safely. When he started work in the field decades ago that was not the case.
"You followed what the tradesmen did. There was a higher level of risk taken," he said.
Times have changed and Fleming said fatalities and injuries among young workers are dropping — a sign that the message of safety is hitting home. Through college and apprenticeship programs such as those offered by the CCAT, Fleming said young workers are learning safety and developing a voice to ask the right questions when safety seems at risk.
He said workers at EllisDon are encouraged to report unsafe conditions.
"It gives a voice to the young worker, allowing them to speak up when they feel uncomfortable doing that work and if there are other possible ways of doing it," he explained.
Fleming said Ellis has helped lead the charge through the League of Champions, a safety recognition program for general contractors and companies participating in safety initiatives that are supported by the Ontario General Contractors Association.
Through working with Ellis, EllisDon has developed a safety recognition program in which workers fill out cards identifying unsafe conditions or acts and how they were or can be corrected. Workers are recognized for their input.
EllisDon recently started a four-hour foreman/subcontractor safety training program.
"We want to make sure our subs go home safely too."
Cristina Selva, executive director of the CCAT, said she hopes the safety awareness event will help the OYAP students develop "a deeper appreciation for and a commitment to working safely and helping others to do so as well.
"We want to make sure that workers starting their first job go to work properly trained and equipped," said Selva.
Mike Yorke, president of Carpenters' Local 27, said when companies partner with industry leaders to promote changes to health and safety on the jobsite, a "cultural shift" can occur.
"And that shift will increase the health and safety of every worker," he said.