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How a workplace tragedy inspired one father to commit his life to young worker safety

Factory worker wearing uniform and safety goggles.

Most people hope for early retirement, but Rob Ellis says he’s on the “freedom 93 plan.” He wants to spend his life making sure that what happened to his son David, doesn’t happen to anyone else.

David was 18 when he told his parents he wanted to help pay for his schooling. “He went to work for a small manufacturing company,” Ellis says. “And unfortunately, he did not get any orientation or training on the job.” Ellis did not know at the time, and neither did David, that orientation and training were mandatory.

After his first day of work, Ellis asked how the day went. “David shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘It's a job.’ I didn't ask him anything more than that because I didn't want to embarrass him, asking him detailed questions,” says Ellis. “And, you know, I reflect back on that. I have for many years now. Because, as a parent, I have a duty to ask a lot more questions.”

David’s second day on the job was the one that changed the Ellis family’s lives forever. The manufacturing company was an industrial bakery, and David’s job was to clean out a large industrial mixer. “What they didn't have on that mixer was guards and lockouts,” says Ellis. “The machine got turned on when David was cleaning out the mixer.”

He died six days later. Despite the tragedy, the company pushed forward, back up and running 48 hours after his death. 

After David was killed, Ellis sold all the shares of his business, started talking to teens and young adults about workplace safety and eventually started MySafeWork. He wanted to do something for David — to honour his life and prevent future tragedies. “I’ve got a mission,” he says. “I'll fight for the next generation of young workers.”

First Job, Safe Job – a new initiative aimed at helping parents keep their kids safe as they enter the workforce – has a similar mission. The online resource provides helpful tools to encourage important conversations.

Part of workplace safety for teens is learning to recognize an unsafe work environment and knowing their rights and how to exercise them. “Young people have no idea that they have a right to say no to unsafe work. They have a right to put up their hand and say, ‘I need more help.’ They have a right to step away and get more training,” says Ellis. “And sometimes, young people take manufacturing jobs just simply focused on the dollar. And that's partly our fault too.”

As parents, we tell our teens that making money will help offset the cost of school, that they can and should go out and earn some money—but Ellis says there’s something missing from the conversation: honest communication.

“I think we've gone beyond the stage of being embarrassed about asking questions. We need to lean across our kitchen tables and really connect with our kids.” He suggests asking questions like: “What kind of job do you really want to do?” and “How can I help?”

“More than anything else, what I tell moms and dads is: ask better questions.”

During the hiring process, Ellis recommends asking plenty of questions about the company, their communication and their health and safety protocols. “What are some of the hazards in manufacturing? What do I need to know before I start working? Have there been any injuries on the job? Is there high turnover in the staff?”

“If the orientation lasts for 30 seconds, you do not want to work there.”

Ellis knows he is on the right path because he sees a shift slowly taking place, with more young workers standing up for their rights. He wants them to know that their lives are more valuable than any paycheque.

“It’s very encouraging to see how the next generation of young workers are asking a lot more questions,” says Ellis. And parents can help them be more comfortable in their approach.

He’s also noticed an improvement in employers. “We've seen changes, right from the government to corporations, to unions, to small manufacturing companies,” says Ellis. “And it's much better now than it was even 20 years ago. But there's still a lot of room for improvement.”

“We had an 18-year-old boy who we loved.  He was down a path of being a kind and successful person. The loss of him was absolutely devastating for our family and everybody in our community,” says Ellis. “David was a musician. He played in a band, and he loved helping people. He and his buddies would take sleeping bags and meals out and feed homeless people.  He always had a big smile on his face. He was a really good kid.”

Ellis’ commitment to keeping young workers safe is both in honour of David’s life and in service to future generations of young workers.

“It's hard when somebody you love dies and so unnecessary for that to happen,” says Ellis. “You can't prepare yourself at all for it. It's devastating. But then you do something after. You do something about it.”

For a comprehensive look at how parents can help their children safely enter the workforce, visit the First Job, Safe Job website. Empower yourself and your kids.

The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.