In Canadian Schools, Prioritizing On-the-Job Safety

In Canada, young workers are three times more likely to be injured or killed in a workplace accident than their more experienced counterparts. That’s why an organization called My Safe Work goes into high schools to educate students on workplace safety—before they enter the job market.

Hamilton, Ontario, RENEW/NextGen members Sam Mercel, left, and Rich Dipietro, right, joined My Safe Work founder Rob Ellis to talk workplace safety at Cathedral High School in April. Mercel and Ellis are pictured wearing the organizations “Jersey of Courage,” each one covered in the signatures of lawmakers, business leaders and front-line workers who have pledged to make Canada the world’s safest place to work.

In April, Hamilton, Ontario, Local 105 RENEW/NextGen members Rich Dipietro and Sam Mercel joined a team from My Safe Work at Cathedral High School to talk to students about their own experiences with safety on the job.

“We’re lucky at the IBEW,” said Mercel, 26, an inside wireman and journeyman welder. “Safety is part of our training from day one, but young people in nonunion jobs or trades don’t often get the same education.”

My Safe Work founder Rob Ellis knows the consequences of improper training all too well. In 1999, his son, David, was killed at age 18 on his second day on the job at an industrial bakery. His compelling story is the starting point at the forums he and his organization hold, which reach more than 100,000 students each year across Canada.

Volunteers like Dipietro and Mercel, along with business leaders and other members of the local communities, called “safety champions” by program leaders, then participate in a question-and-answer session where they connect with students using examples from their own careers.

“The main session, and then a smaller setting afterwards in classrooms, was a great opportunity to talk to the kids about the IBEW and about how you shouldn’t feel afraid to say ‘no’ if an employer asks you to put yourself in a risky situation,” Mercel said. “University isn’t the right choice for every kid, so I was glad we got to introduce them to the trades and to a union where we prioritize safety,” he said.

First District strategic coordinator Kate Walsh says she’s been encouraging NextGen committees at locals across Canada to get involved with My Safe Work whenever the organization comes to schools in their communities. “These kids relate to people who are closer to their own age, so young IBEW members can have a real impact.”

Walsh, who attended the Hamilton session with Dipietro and Mercel, said one young woman in the classroom session asked her, “What’s a union?” a question she was pleased to answer. “If we can teach these young people that there are opportunities for great, lifelong careers while we talk to them about safety, that’s an added benefit,” Walsh said.

Toronto Local 636 Business Manager Barry Brown is thrilled to see more young IBEW members across Canada getting involved with My Safe Work. His local has been involved with the organization for years, participating when they can and donating the proceeds of an annual golf tournament to the group for at least five years.

“The late First District Vice President Phil Flemming introduced us to Rob Ellis and My Safe Work years ago,” Brown said, “And it’s a cause we’re really committed to. I’m happy to see other locals, and especially young members, getting involved.”

As for Mercel, he says he’s looking forward to his next opportunity to be a “safety champion” with My Safe Work. “It was my first time participating in an event like that, and it’s nice to think you’re helping some young person learn to ask the questions that will keep them safe on their first job.”