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Canadian youth are getting hurt in service industry jobs. What needs to change? A lot.

Grocery store employee helping female customer with her order. Woman reading shopping list on mobile phone and asking for help from a teen store assistant.

Jeremy Bowley did well in school. He was an amazing baseball player, loved watching hockey and was a huge Toronto Maple Leafs fan. He was studying criminology and wanted to work in forensics. And his smile, his mom says, lit up the whole room.

“He was the kid who was really, really quiet,” says his mom, Elisa Kilborne. “He was quite an observer. But then once you got to really know him and he got comfortable with you, then he was the life of the party,” she says. “Everyone would fight over who got to sit by Jeremy.”

A hardworking student who accomplished many things, Jeremy had dreams and goals for his future, but his life was cruelly cut short.

At just 21 years old, Jeremy was killed working at his summer job where he set up tents for events and weddings; a tent pole contacted an overhead hydro line, electrocuting him and injuring several members of his work crew.

The impact of his life, and his death, is still felt 11 years later by his loved ones, who have committed themselves to spreading the word about workplace safety to young workers and parents.

“There's no paycheck that is worth your wellbeing,” says Kilborne. “Absolutely, not one. You have a voice for a reason.”  

“I think, as parents, we don’t realize that every job has hazards,” says Pam Patry, a mom and health and safety consultant with Workplace Safety & Prevention Services. “We spend so much time preparing our kids for life. We set them up for success and we assume the employer is going to take care of them, unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.”

It wasn’t the case for Jeremy. After his death, his family learned there really wasn’t a proper supervisor with safety knowledge on-site. “One of my biggest regrets is I didn't ask enough questions,” says his mom.

To support parents in preparing their children for a safe and positive work experience, a new blog called First Job, Safe Job has been created.  The online resource equips parents with a roadmap to talk to their kids about safety, influence their beliefs and behaviours and to challenge their low-risk perceptions about the workplace - from the application and interview to the hiring process, first day and beyond.

Your teen’s first job is a big milestone. “When teenagers start their first job, they are pre-occupied, excited for their first paycheque," says Patry. “And at that age, they often feel invincible when in fact they are at a higher risk.

The fact is young workers under the age of 25 are four times more likely to be injured in their first month on the job.

According to the Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB), between 2012 and 2021, 98 young workers died in Ontario as a result of a work-related incident and thousands of injuries are reported each year. The majority of workplace injuries to young workers occur in the service sector, from physical, environmental, chemical and psychological hazards.

Kilborne’s mission is to save others from grief and heartbreak. She says parents can start by asking questions about what their kids know. And then keep asking questions: “What did the training, the orientation really involve? What did the day look like? Did you look at manuals? Did you look at a piece of equipment and talk about, not only how it functions, but here's how to use it safely?”

It's about instilling a safety mindset early with our kids and learning to get comfortable with being uncomfortable to speak up. “If we start talking safety in our homes, it'll carry over into the workplace,” Kilbourne says. “And then they’ll also feel more comfortable coming to talk to you about it.”

Both Kilbourne and Patry want to underscore that it’s okay to ask questions. “Parents can help their kids be proactive and find ways of wording questions so their child can go back into the workplace the next day and ask a supervisor,” says Kilborne. “They may not want to be embarrassed, but chances are extremely high that they're not the only one looking for answers.”

She gives lots of talks at schools and has seen first-hand that most young people do not know their rights at work including the right to know about workplace hazards, the right to refuse dangerous work without reprisal and the right to participate in health and safety discussions.

“Knowing your rights is a key component, but exercising them is an even bigger one,” says Kilborne. “Awareness leads to education, and education leads to prevention.” She can’t help but wonder, about the way things could have gone differently had someone known the risks at her son’s workplace and spoken up.

Life today for the Kilborne family looks different than it would have had Jeremy survived.

“It makes me so sad because his sister, Caitlin, just had her first child and he's missing out on that,” says Kilborne. “I always point at pictures, and say ‘that's Uncle Jeremy,’ and he's in heaven now.”

One thing that is for sure, his nephew – Nolan Jeremy, who Kilborne says looks just like him – will grow up knowing his uncle and his story.

 For a comprehensive look at how parents can help their children safely enter the workforce, visit the First Job, Safe Job website. Book an in-school Health and Safety Awareness Presentation by filling out this HSAP booking form. Empower yourself and your kids.