July 19th started out like any other Saturday for Chris Lawrence. The 15-year-old headed to his job at a gravel-crushing operation at Wintering Hills, southeast of Drumheller. He had spent six weeks in training for a summer job with Arjon Construction. On this particular day, Lawrence was wearing his safety gear and working near a conveyor belt when something went wrong. Lawrence was killed in what one of his co-workers described as a "freak accident." According to media reports, a different, unidentified friend, who also worked at Arjon, told Lawrence's girlfriend that he saw Lawrence's vest get caught in the conveyor belt. The teen, who dreamed of becoming a heavy duty mechanic - just like his grandfather - died two days shy of his 16th birthday.
Could what happened to Lawrence, and other teens like him, have been avoided? In 2012, a 19-year-old died after receiving a blow to the head from a machinery part while working on a drilling rig. A year later, an 18-year-old was fatally crushed by a vehicle while on the job. These tragedies, and the incident involving Lawrence, which is being investigated by Alberta Occupational Health and Safety, bring to light an often-ignored issue in Alberta: Are the province's labour laws doing enough to protect young workers?
The Alberta Federation of Labour says no. "Alberta has some of the worst labour laws in terms of how it protects workers, especially young workers," says Siobhan Vipond, secretary treasurer of the AFL. She says the province hasn't placed enough limitations on young workers. "Other provinces, such as Manitoba, have limitations," she says. In Manitoba, if you're under 16, you're prohibited from working in certain fields, including construction. "In Saskatchewan, there are limitations in what young workers can do. They aren't allowed to work in high-risk jobs," Vipond says.
In Alberta, young workers are divided into two categories: 12- to 14-year-olds and 15- to 17-year-olds. The 12- to 14-year-old category was added in 2005; those workers are considered adolescents. There are specific limits to what they can do and where they can work. For instance, they can work in the kitchen of a restaurant but not the kitchen of a bar, a small distinction that "we shouldn't be proud of," Vipond says.
Adolescents can basically work in retail and food service, or as a delivery person, but they are not permitted to work in other sectors, such as construction. But when it comes to the 15- to 17-year-old category, limitations only deal with the number of hours they can work on school days and weekends; they can work any type of job, including on construction sites.
The AFL believes part of the solution lies in introducing mandatory training and targeted inspections. "We want to see training," Vipond says. "To train an adult worker is so much different than training a young worker in terms of what they need to know." The current system is also complaint-based, which Vipond says creates problems. "The obvious shortcoming is that unless someone makes a complaint, no one is looking in the window," Vipond says. "The province should be doing its part and doing targeted inspections to make sure that on an ongoing basis, health and safety standards are being met. We need to be proactive. All the rules in the world don't mean a thing if we don't enforce them."
Alberta's Employment Standards Code was put into place in 1988. Since then, only one minor amendment has been added, says Kyle Fawcett, who was Alberta's minister of jobs, skills, training and labour when a recent review of the code was done (Premier Jim Prentice has since moved him into the environmental portfolio). The code is meant to allow for "healthy, safe and fair working environments and still allow businesses to be competitive," Fawcett says. "It is everything from how they get paid to their rights for holidays, how they get terminated or let go, what rights they have in those respects to the requirements to be eligible to work. It is a wide gamut of rules that are put in place that guide minimum standards." The provincial government went through a consultation process regarding the code last spring. They held stakeholder meetings and accepted electronic submissions of recommendations from organizations such as the AFL and the Merit Contractors Association, an organization that supports open shop construction. A review of the code is expected to come out this fall.
One of the AFL's recommendations is a mandatory, worker-employee health safety committee. Vipond says this would allow work sites to be proactive on health and safety by giving them a scheduled time to deal with those matters. The organization's written submission also includes the recommendation that "No person under the age of 15 should be allowed to work in a workplace in Alberta, with the exception of newspaper/flyer delivery and babysitting." The AFL also asks for young workers to receive special training with regards to "safety, harassment and their rights at work."
Merit Contractors Association has pushed for labour law reform for the past five years. Peter Pilarski, vice-president of the southern Alberta chapter of Merit, says the organization submitted several recommendations for the review. Merit would like specific hours-of-work provisions for the construction industry. Currently, there is a maximum of a 12-hour workday.
Pilarski says there are specific areas and cases where it makes sense for the construction industry to have some flexibility on work hours. For instance, workers pouring concrete may need to work longer than 12 hours to ensure that it sets properly. Merit recommends the creation of "a special permit for construction companies engaged in concrete pouring to accommodate that sector of the industry's specific circumstances related to hours of work." The organization would also like the province's current allowance of a 44-hour workweek to continue, saying it "serves both construction employers and employees very well." When it comes to the AFL's recommendations regarding adolescent workers, Pilarski says that if those recommendations were to go into effect, it wouldn't affect the construction industry anyways. "Construction companies don't hire people this young since job sites can be dangerous and the liability for our contractors is too high."
The provincial government spent several months pouring over thousands of recommendations and deciding which ones best reflected what Albertans want. "As a result of that review, if it is clear that there need to be changes to modernize conditions for employees or employers, we'll do it" Fawcett says. But there are still more steps that the government will take before any changes are implemented. "We will be taking comments from stakeholders before we use that feedback on the report to finalize any changes needed," Fawcett says. The government will likel y release the report in the fall, although the recent change in leadership may delay that plan.
Vipond says a review of the code should only be the beginning. "Doing a review is always a good first step," Vipond says.
"But a review only means anything if there is meaningful action taken afterwards."