Youth are flooding workplaces: We have a duty to protect them
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Employers are facing a labour shortage that is unlike anything I’ve seen in my career — and I’m no spring chicken.
Whether you blame COVID, the Great Resignation, or some other confluence of events — the end result is the same: A lot of help wanted signs and few applicants.
This means employers are getting creative and looking beyond traditional labour pools to ensure they get the staff they need to operate. One group that is benefiting from this is young workers — but this poses some big challenges for workplace safety.
In June, OHS Canada posted a story on its website with this headline: “With more kids working and getting hurt on the job, Quebec to review labour laws.”
There has been an increase in the number of children between the ages of 11 and 14 joining the workforce because of “persistent labour shortages,” the article said.
No minimum working age in Quebec
Quebec is an outlier in Canada in that it has no minimum working age. B.C., by contrast, recently raised its minimum working age from 12 to 16 in most cases. Ontario and Alberta have minimum ages of 14, for example, to take on a job.
To be fair, Quebec does have plenty of regulations to keep young workers safe. Jean Boulet, the province’s Labour Minister, pointed out that it’s not the wild west. The minimum age to drive a forklift is 16 and the minimum age to do sandblasting work is 18.
But what is indisputable is the rising rate of injury among young Canadians.
In 2021, 203 children under age 16 in Quebec suffered a work-related injury. That’s a 36 per cent jump from 2020. In 2018, there were only 85 injuries in that same age group.
B.C. also reported an increase in young workers hurt on the job — more than 7,000 injuries in 2021 alone. It’s not apples to apples, because it’s a different age group.
None of this is surprising. OHS professionals know young workers, and new workers, are at risk when it comes to getting hurt on the job. They are often distracted, excited about their new gig and wanting to do a good job, and less on safety.
The excitement of that first summer job
My first summer job was at a Chinese restaurant in Tecumseh, Ont., as a dishwasher when I was 14. For $3.90 an hour, I got to wash dishes, tend the garden, clean grease traps and do anything else the owners wanted.
During my first week on the job, I had to clean the hoods above the massive cooktop. As I stood in a wok, one of the chefs — as a prank — fired it up.
My shoes started melting instantly into the pot and I had to jump out and onto the floor amid his fits of laughter.
That could have ended badly. I could have slipped into the scorching wok and burned myself. I could have fallen off the stove on to the hard tile floor. Did I complain? It didn’t even cross my mind. We laughed it off and I threw the shoes away when I got home, because the soles were toast.
Nobody told me I had a right to refuse unsafe work. Nobody said I should report unsafe behaviour. If I did, I’m quite certain I would have been fired.
We all owe it to new workers, in every sector, to set the safety bar high. Teach them it’s OK to say no. And whether it’s your workplace or not, let’s pledge to do this: If you see something unsafe, say something about it.