Message from Paul Kells

Sean KellsDear Teacher:

Injuries and deaths among young workers are far too common in the history of the working world. We cannot let this continue. These injuries and deaths are preventable. But their prevention requires workers equipped with a basic knowledge of the hazards and risks they will face in the workplace and what they can do to protect themselves. Unfortunately, this is the very knowledge that young people usually lack when they join the workforce, often with tragic consequences.

Now that the death and injury of Ontario's young workers has at long last been acknowledged as a problem, with lack of knowledge lying at its root, the education system is being seen as one of the key solutions. That is why occupational health and safety is being incorporated into the high school curriculum. But every teacher knows that presenting the information will not be enough. There is a second and more difficult part of the problem: young people must understand the personal relevance of what they learn.

Workplace injury, illness and death are not statistical abstractions. They happen to real people. I am utterly, absolutely convinced that my son Sean would be alive today if he or I had known then what I know now about workplace risks. More than that, every one of Sean's friends suffered incredibly, some of them with severe and perhaps permanent emotional scars. Sean's high school teachers were devastated by his totally preventable death. Those who have suffered workplace injuries are or were once students themselves, with the same feelings of invincibility and immortality that are so typical of young people. The important lesson teachers must impart to their students is that they are not immune to workplace injury, illness or death, that these things can happen to them and to their friends, and that what they are learning can literally save their lives. The real challenge for teachers lies in getting students to this level of understanding.

Where there are challenges there are opportunities; chances to make a real difference in the lives of others. Few of us have such opportunities. You, as teachers, do. Students need people to engage them in the topic. They need to see that what they learn in high school is not the end, but just the beginning of their health and safety education. Workplace health and safety has to be seen as something requiring constant vigilance and constant improvement, the equal of quality and efficiency. When young people start work, it should be with an eagerness both to learn more about health and safety and to contribute to it in their new workplace. Teachers have a unique opportunity to help young people develop this type of attitude. When you succeed, you will save lives and prevent incalculable human suffering.

Teachers can undoubtedly make an important difference in their students' lives. But there is more to it than that. When young people leave school they not only become young workers; they become contributing members of society at large. With their new attitudes, they will exert a positive influence on other workers, family members and friends, who can in turn affect others. In this way, the relatively small change initiated by teachers can be amplified beyond the classroom and create a societal understanding that all occupational illness and injury is preventable and must not be tolerated. This kind of cultural shift is essential if workplace injury and death are to be eliminated. And it can all begin with YOU!! Thank you for making a difference.

Paul Kells

About Paul Kells

Paul Kells is an injury prevention champion and strategist. He places particular emphasis on the Safe Communities movement and Passport to Safety, a program aimed at changing the culture around workplace injury through young people.

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