July 22, 2014 2:21 pm
Updated: July 23, 2014 9:50 pm

Province urged to toughen worker laws after teen dies at job site

EDMONTON – Alberta Occupational Health and Safety is investigating the death of a teenager at a construction site southeast of Drumheller.

The teen was working for Arjon Construction on a gravel crushing operation at Wintering Hills.

OHS said there was an issue with a conveyor belt at the site.

A co-worker described the incident as a freak accident.

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“It shouldn’t have happened, I agree. The company is a very safe company. I can tell you the boy was wearing all his proper equipment. He did everything right,” said Mathew Blackburn.

“It could have happened to me. It happened. It’s a dangerous site.”

The death is not being treated as criminal. Friends and family have identified the victim as 15-year-old Chris Lawrence.

According to OHS, anyone aged 15 to 18 can work at any type of job as long as they don’t work between midnight and 6 a.m.

“Employers are responsible for making sure that their employees are fully trained and that they are aware of all the workplace hazards,” explains Lauren Welsh from OHS. “It appears that this worker was in training to be able to work on this site.”

The gravel operation has since been shut down for the investigation.

The Alberta Federation of Labour calls the fatality a “tragic reminder of Alberta’s unsafe work laws.”

“Alberta’s child labour laws are among the most lax in Canada,” said Siobhan Vipond, AFL secretary treasurer.

“The AFL has repeatedly made recommendations to improve working conditions and safety standards, specifically for young workers. This weekend’s tragic news is yet another reminder that much more needs to be done to keep Albertans safe at work.”

“It’s always terrible,” Vipond told Global News on Tuesday.

“Nobody goes to work and doesn’t expect to come home, and nobody’s family expects someone not to come home.

“It’s particularly tragic when we’re talking about a young worker, 15, because you think about all the things someone could have done with their lives. But it does make you examine what are we not doing right – that we’re not protecting our kids… We know it’s summer, construction season is upon us. Kids like to go out, earn some summer money, but this isn’t what should happen.”

In April, a submission to the Employment Standards from the AFL included several pages of recommendations on young workers.

“Alberta needs targeted inspections of workplaces that employ 15-17 year-olds, especially in construction and other comparatively dangerous occupations,” said Vipond. “The AFL made urgent recommendations earlier this year, and this past weekend we are sadly reminded why these changes are so desperately needed in Alberta.”

The province is currently conducting an Employment Standards Code review, and has consulted roughly 4,000 Albertans and organizations for feedback.

Would the province look at restricting young workers from certain industries that are more dangerous?

“That question is open for discussion, and I think that’s what’s being discussed right now as part of the larger Employment Standards Code review that’s going on,” said Brookes Merritt, spokesperson with the Alberta government’s Occupational Health and Safety department.

“Generally speaking, youth workers are in a higher risk category, largely due to lack of experience in the workforce.”

“And when you combine youth with certain industries that are higher risk in general like the construction industry or the mining industry, certainly that’s a concern to the government of Alberta, and we do look very closely at what the working conditions are for youth workers in industries like that,” explained Merritt.

He said, in the last three years, there have been three young people killed on the job in Alberta.

Alberta youth fatalities on the job

Supplied, Occupational Health and Safety

“For every workplace fatality, an Occupation Health and Safety inspection is set in motion, an investigation, and that’s occurring in this case too,” said Merritt. “Given the young age of the worker here, we’re also running a parallel Employment Standards investigation, and that’s looking at things like hours of work, rest periods, rates of pay, etc.”

“We expect and demand – in the province of Alberta – that, regardless of the age of the worker or the nature of the work, that employers take the responsibility – and they must by legislation – ensure  that their workers are operating in a safe manner.”

A report on the province’s Employment Standards Code review is due to be presented in the fall.

Occupational Health and Safety Results 2013

© Shaw Media, 2014

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