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When to Tell the Boss 'No'

Dustin Burns could have died on the job because he didn't know his rights. Now, he shows other young workers how to stay safe.

Doug Ward 4 Sep 2013TheTyee.ca

Doug Ward is a veteran political reporter. Read his previous Tyee work.

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Dustin Burns, a high-rigger in the live entertainment business, says many young people are scared to speak up in dangerous situations.

One day in 2006 Dustin Burns, a young construction worker, was given the keys to an excavator at a Port Coquitlam building site and told by his boss to dig.

Burns had no training or experience with the heavy construction machine. He rammed its claw into the ground and ruptured a buried four-inch gas line.

There was an explosion, some nearby residents were evacuated and his bosses feared a hefty insurance claim.

"It wasn't my proudest moment," said Burns. "But it was because I was a young worker with no training, given the keys to a machine I clearly was incapable of operating. But I wasn't fired for screwing up. They knew they had made the mistake."

This is one of the cautionary tales Burns tells high school students as a speaker for Alive After Five, a program administered by the B.C. Federation of Labour to raise awareness among young workers about workplace dangers. Burns and other young union activists visit schools throughout the province, using real life case studies to alert students to the risks they could face on the job.

Young workers most vulnerable

Young workers are among the most vulnerable segment of B.C.'s workforce. The statistics are harrowing.

Sixty-six young workers died because of workplace injury or disease between 2002 and 2012, according to WorkSafeBC (18 were due to motor vehicle accidents and another 4 due to plane crashes), and 15 per cent of all workplace injuries involve young workers.

"These figures are tragic," said Gord Lechner, director of the B.C. Fed's Health and Safety Centre, which has been running the Alive After Five program for nine years.

Lechner said young workers have a 40 per cent higher chance of injury, according to research, than other employees because of their lack of experience.

"So Alive After Five is about telling young people that they can get their experience safely."

Burns knows about danger. He works as a high-rigger in the live entertainment business, operating between 18 and 30 metres above stages. Up there, one mistake or failure to adhere to safety procedures can mean death or serious injury to himself, other workers or audience members.

He is member of IATSE, the union representing technicians, artisans, and crafts people in the entertainment industry.

"I ask students: Why are there so many young people injured?" said Burns.

"They say it's because young people can be stupid. I tell them it's because of what we do in Canada. We mine, we log, we fish, we work construction, go to the oil sands. This is why."

In the current media culture, it's easy to forget that not all young workers are university-educated, middle-class kids handling a mouse and keyboard in the safe environs of a HootSuite-type social media start-up or any other white collar firm or profession.

About 37,000 young workers were injured in the province between 2008 and 2012 and lost time on the job as a result, according to WorkSafeBC. Around 8,000 young workers were seriously injured.

Young worker injuries during that period accounted for about 1.1 million workdays lost and around $323 million for time-loss claims.

"These are the sort of horror stories I give them," said Burns. "I just feel that I've been put in a lot of terrible situations at work and I've made bad decisions. My message is don't do what I've done or put yourself in situations I found myself in."

Safety a tough sell for some

Burns finds it tough convincing students in some of Metro Vancouver's more middle-class areas about the potential perils of the workplace. Many of these teenagers are convinced a blue-collar job isn't in their future.

But he finds more receptive audiences in the more working-class schools south of Fraser. Like Surrey, for example, where Burns grew up in a low-income family and continues to live.

It helps that the tall, gangly 31-year-old has immediate street cred. It's easier to connect with teens when you walk into a classroom wearing a System of a Down Local Crew t-shirt and talk about setting up the light and sound show for this summer's Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake show at BC Place.

Burns, a life-long skateboarder raised largely by his dad, wears his street authenticity on his sleeve -- or, at least on his body.

He has a tattoo on one side of his neck that says "Desmond," the name of his seven-year-old son. On the other side of his neck is a tattoo of a swallow with a dagger through it, a symbol in memory of his best friend Robbie, a skateboarder from Surrey who fell into the San Francisco drug scene and committed suicide. He has other tattoos that have helped him deal with emotional trauma in his life.

The top hazards facing young workers, according to WorkSafeBC, are: lifting heavy objects, working on elevated levels, working with knives, hot substances or objects, food slicers, using mobile equipment or motor vehicles and working near running equipment or machinery.

A standard story told at Alive After Five talks is one about an employee who severely injured herself while selling mini-donuts at the Pacific National Exhibition.

"There was no slip protection on the ground so she slipped and dunked one arm in the deep fryer," said Burns. "Employers should provide non-slip protection. I tell the students to look for slip protection if they end up at Starbucks or McDonalds."

Burns said that many young male workers have a "macho" attitude that can undermine safety on the job. "They want to show off to the boss. I can relate to that -- I was that person."

Inexperienced, and unaware

Despite being funded by the labour movement, the Alive After Five program, according to Burns, is less about promoting unionism than about informing students about workers' rights under the Workers Compensation Act and provincial Occupational Health and Safety regulation.

Burns and other Alive After Five speakers emphasize the right to refuse work that workers believe is hazardous to their health and safety or to the safety of others. It's a right Burns said he was unaware of when he started working straight out of high school in the late '90s.

One of Burns' first jobs was working the night-shift as a janitor at the Surrey Place Mall. One day he ended up in the hospital with a case of chemical poisoning.

The novice employee had used an industrial strength cleaner with his bare hands to wipe some steel. The boss had failed to tell Burns to wear gloves and mix the cleaner with water. "My mouth ended up tasting like metal for a few months after that," he recalled.

Later, on the same job, he was told to wipe down a 15-metre-high ledge at the mall. Burns walked onto the ledge but quickly turned around, convinced the assignment was unsafe. Not realizing that workers in B.C. have the legal right to refuse unsafe work, Burns quit the job, believing that was his only option.

"I was right out of high school, about 17," said Burns. "Nobody had ever talked to me about this stuff."

When accidents happen

Burns said his previous blithe attitude towards workplace safety probably stemmed from the precarious financial situations he faced as a youth and later as a young single dad. "Pre-safety Dustin, I was probably in a lot of dangerous situations because I needed to make money. Especially when I had a son."

Burns found some economic security and a job environment where safety was a top priority when he joined IATSE and trained to become a rigger at live entertainment shows.

"My entire career is based on not dropping things on people. So there is a very strong safety element in what I do," said Burns. "There are cowboys in every industry but I try hard not to be that guy."

But accidents do happen. In late 2012 while working at the Deadmau5 concert at BC Place, Burns was helping build towers for the speakers. He was high up and clipped-in, attached to an anchor point on the structure so that he could work freely with both hands.

Twenty metres off the ground, Burns yanked on the wrong end of a choke line around his belly. He leaned back on the line while passing some object along, sending himself into free fall. Fortunately, he had correctly attached a safety strap called a lanyard to the structure which deployed and probably saved his life.

"I was able to grab onto a horizontal bar while holding a heavy piece of steel in my hand. I was gripping it for dear life," said Burns.

"When I came down, they were all congratulating me and saying how proud they were of me. I was baffled, thinking I should be fired. And they said that I made a mistake but at least I had properly clipped in."

It's a story he now includes in his high school presentations.

Burns said he has nothing against non-union job sites, but believes unionized workplaces are safer. "A union helps keep safety procedures updated. I know I can talk to someone in the union if something isn't safe and that it will be dealt with.

"When I'm on a union gig, I feel I can trust people. We're all on the same team. Whereas, sometimes on a non-union site, you feel it's every man for himself."  [Tyee]

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