Safety for internships and co-ops: know your rights

A young man was enjoying the first week of his co-op when he was hit and crushed by a front-end loader at the auto recycler where he was doing his placement.

Adam Keunen, 17, was killed in late September making him the third co-op student to die this year.

According to Tom Haxell, vice-president of resources, Canadian Intern Association, there was a technical loophole that left unpaid workers not covered by Canadian legislature.

“He (Keunen) wasn’t covered by the Occupational Health and Safety Act or the ESA (Employment Standards Act) which have real world consequences because after the accident, instead of the Ministry of Labour stepping in and taking over the investigation, it goes to the police,” says Haxell.

This made it so the ministry couldn’t conduct a full review of the workplace.

Every semester students go into placements, co-ops, and internships to gain real-life experience and they should all know what their rights are and what risks exist outside the classroom.

Up until Nov. 6 these two major acts providing workers basic rights and safety coverage did not define interns, co-op students, or placement students as workers.

According to William Lin, media relations coordinator, Ontario Ministry of Labour, the Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act has been passed which extends the OHSA to include unpaid co-op students and other unpaid learners.

Robert Ellis, president of My Safe Work, has been working to make change since his son was killed at his co-op in 1999.

He says he has seen change over the years such as a 30 percent drop in youth worker injuries in the last 15 years but he believes there is still time for growth.

“We’re pleased with the progress but we’re not satisfied with the outcome because I think there’s huge amounts of room to still improve,” he says.

Knowledge is the most important tool for health and safety standards to change according to Ellis.

“Three things we need to concentrate more on is educating employers, educating students, and educating adults as well so we can have a complete support system in place,” he says.

Unpaid students need to make sure they learn as much as they can about what their rights before starting the job.

“It’s about knowing what you’re getting into, before an internship, know your rights going into it and ask your employer questions,” says Haxell.

Durham College has standards set in place before students go into their placement. This January, before starting a placement, students will be required for the first time to complete the Worker Health and Safety Awareness in 4 Steps program online through the Ministry of Labour.

According to Mary Blanchard, associate vice-president academic planning for DC, the program walks any worker through the process of identifying hazards and the reporting strategies. The program also teaches workers their rights and the circumstances involved in refusing unsafe work.

The college also investigates potential placement with a pre-placement safety checklist.

This is a checklist filled out by the employer and ensures they have certain safety programs in place when applicable.

This includes emergency protocols, first aid programs, and physical work conditions.

Students are also required to fill out a health and safety checklist with their placement provider to ensure they have received all the required training.

“It’s the students responsibility too, to make sure that they have a safe and valuable learning experience,” says Blanchard.

She says students need to speak up if they feel their rights or safety is in question.

“Sometimes students are reluctant to do that, to speak up about the quality of the learning experience and also the safety,” says Blanchard. “It’s in no ones best interest for it not to be a safe or valuable learning experience.”

As for high school students going into the workplace, schools are the ones responsible to teach students.

My Safe Work helps to motivate schools and companies to do just that. Ellis regularly speaks to crowds of about 1,000 people and also created something called the Jersey of Courage.

Students and faculty sign a hockey jersey as a way to buy into the safety charter that My Safe Work and its partners created.

“Schools have taken it on and created their own safety charter for their school then have all the students sign it,” says Ellis. “It then becomes instead of a plaque on the wall we create a mobile safety charter. The names will be on that jersey forever.” Over the last two years they have collected about 290,000 signatures.

Organizations such as the Canadian Intern Association fight for paid internships across Canada but they also support change for all unpaid learners.

The main tool they use is something called the Wall of Shame.

When they find illegal internships where students should be getting paid they post the job opening to their Wall of Shame and try to shame them into changing their policies. They will often work with these companies to help them develop new internship programs.

As another semester comes to an end and students head out to the workforce as either graduates or as students on placement, it’s important to for them to know their rights and not to be afraid to speak up.

“Right at the first interview ask as many questions as possible about the company,” says Ellis. “Don’t wait until the second or third day. My son was killed on the second day of his job, without orientation, without any training, and left alone.”