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Every summer, thousands of young people across Canada enter the workforce for the first time. Sadly, for too many of them, that first job may be their last.

The evidence shows that, on average, one in seven young Canadian workers (ages 15-24) will be injured on the job. The workplace injury rate for young workers is more than twice that of the general population. After car accidents, the leading causes of death among young people are machine injuries and electrocutions.

In 2005, in British Columbia alone, 11 young workers died on the job, 151 were seriously injured and more than 9,000 were injured, according to WorkSafe BC. Every year in Manitoba, more than 15,000 15- to 19- year-olds get hurt badly enough to miss work and report the injury to the Workers’ Compensation Board. In Quebec, according to the provincial Commission de la santé et de la sécurité au travail (CSST), 24,000 people aged 24 and under are hurt at work each year.

The types of injuries sustained by young workers range from the dramatic, such as the inexperienced tree cutter maimed by heavy machinery, to the less obvious, like the store cashier who develops tendonitis. Poor training, insufficient supervision and young people not knowing their rights – such as the right to refuse unsafe work – are largely to blame. That’s why CUPE, other unions and provincial workplace safety organizations have made it a priority to educate young workers and their employers.

CUPE is making special efforts to ensure that young workers know about their legislated right to safe and healthy workplaces,” says Anthony Pizzino, director of CUPE’s national research, job evaluation, health and safety branch.

Young workers are more likely to sustain work injuries than more mature workers. When these injuries happen at the start of a worker’s career, they can have longterm consequences for their health as well as our communities. Young workers should know that they can turn to their unions, who can help make their workplaces safer.”

A recent incident at a Quebec Wal-Mart illustrates the work that needs to be done. According to media reports, the store manager was alerted to a bomb threat and asked store clerks to help search for the device. One young employee, badly shaken, later complained to her parents and the story went public. Wal-Mart defended itself by saying it didn’t force anybody to participate in the bomb search. But it’s clear the workers were not aware they could have said no.

CUPE supports and encourages initiatives that raise awareness of young worker health and safety. Most provincial workplace safety boards now have campaigns and resources aimed specifically at youth. WorkSafe BC’s new Demand Safety campaign uses graphic images of severed hands and torn eyeballs to drive its message home.

The Nova Scotia Workers’ Compensation Board used the same gory images successfully last year. This summer, the NSWCB’s new youth campaign is called Not Worth It, and features an interactive website where visitors learn about injuries and hazards by “shopping” for replacement body parts. Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board has a separate website for young workers, while Quebec’s CSST launched a two-year youth action plan in 2004.

CUPE will continue to work with its partners to ensure that young workers and their employers know their respective rights and responsibilities,” Pizzino says. “No parent should have to worry about their child getting hurt at their first job.”

For more resources, visit these websites:

By Natasha Gauthier