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Young workers at risk on the job in Alberta

Young workers at risk on the job in Alberta
Province addresses concerns raised in study of injury rates
Kelly Cryderman, Calgary Herald
Published: Friday, August 22, 2008

The Alberta government is worried about significantly higher injury rates among young workers compared to their older counterparts -- figures that are revealed in a detailed new report.

Although the number of claims last year from young Albertans aged 15 to 24 dropped slightly from 2006, rates remain higher than those seen among older workers, according to a report posted this week on the Employment and Immigration Department's website.

Last year, young workers made 19.5 per cent of all lost-time claims and 22.7 per cent of disabling injury claims, even though they made up about 17 per cent of the entire workforce.

The report is particularly significant because Alberta has the highest proportion of young workers of all the provinces. It has the lowest unemployment rate and highest workforce participation rate for young workers -- and the count of young workers continues to climb.

"We're concerned about these numbers," said Janice Schroeder, a spokeswoman for Employment and Immigration.

"We could be doing more on the education side, and that's something we will be looking at."

For almost 10 years, the government and the Workers' Compensation Board has targeted young workers -- and recently has included temporary foreign workers -- in safety campaigns.

Employers also have greater responsibilities when hiring younger workers.

"Sometimes it's training and their reluctance to ask questions," Schroeder said of the higher injury rates among young people.

Many young workers only work part-time while going to school. But even with less hours worked, they have more injuries.

"It indicates an even higher likelihood of injury for young workers compared to other age groups than employment counts would suggest," the report said.

And although the government has allowed youth aged 12 to 14 to work certain jobs since 2005, the report does not include any data on their injury rates. When asked, the government simply replied that they do not receive that particular data from the WCB.

The fact those figures are not available does not sit well with Liberal employment and immigration critic Hugh MacDonald.

"They should be keeping close track of what's happening with those young workers," MacDonald said Thursday.

"We cannot treat these young people as disposable."

However, many of those teens have had good experiences. Marissa Grayson, 14, has worked at Lloyd's Rollersports Centre for the past year and feels safe because she trusts her bosses and co-workers.

The deep-fryer in the kitchen is also designed so workers cannot come in contact with the hot oil.

Grayson said safety is "the workers' and the employers' responsibility. The employers should get safer fry machines and the workers should be more careful about what they do."

According to the report, injuries to young people are most likely to occur in the summer months of July and August. The WCB reports that food and convenience stores saw the highest number of lost-time claims for young workers in 2007, followed by the restaurant and takeout food services industry.

Gary Wagar, executive director of the Alberta Construction Safety Association, an industry-sponsored group, said most construction employers train their youngest workers with care.

Wagar said there's twice as many construction workers in the province now compared to 10 years ago. Many are young and inexperienced, and the industry has taken that into account.

He is disappointed, however, that the government has shelved a series of "graphic" videos meant to show young workers the pitfalls of not paying attention to safety. One showed a young man cutting his thumb off while slicing cheese because he was distracted by an attractive woman across the counter.

"At that age, they're effective," Wagar said of the videos, which cost the government more than $700,000.

Cameron Mustard, president of the of Institute for Work and Health, said it's not so much young workers who are prone to injury, it's inexperienced workers.

"It's not about how old they are, it's about how new they are," he said.

Mustard said his research shows that 40- to 50-year-olds who have been on at a new job for a month or less have injury rates four to six times higher than their counterparts who have been onsite for a year.

Across all age groups, Alberta's injury frequency is the fourth-lowest in the country, and lower than the national average, according to employment and immigration.

"Our fatality frequency is the third highest, and above the national average," Schroeder said Thursday.

However, the report said young workers do not have higher fatality rates than older workers.

© The Calgary Herald 2008

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