Children around dangerous work can have tragic results

Vancouver Sun/March 28, 2008

A 14-year-old boy is dead, killed at mill site near Cranbrook nine days ago.

Steven Clancy Blackmore was apparently trying to manipulate some heavy equipment at a lumber mill with a pole when the weight of the equipment "must have been too heavy and fell back on the victim," according to an RCMP press release issued six days after the accident. "When found by his father, the pole was pinned across the victim's neck."

Neither his father nor paramedics was able to revive him.

The victim is a nephew of fundamentalist Mormon leader Winston Blackmore. The work site is owned by Palmer Bar Holdings Inc., whose sole director is Duane Palmer. Palmer is Blackmore's bishop in the community of Bountiful and superintendent of the government-funded Mormon Hills School.

The boy's father, Karl Blackmore, told RCMP that his son was not working at the site and was not an employee of Palmer Bar Holdings. The father told police that he took his son with him after the mill was closed to unload some wood. While the father did that, his son was apparently left on his own to scramble around heavy equipment.

RCMP, the provincial coroner and WorkSafeBC are all investigating. WorkSafeBC has yet to determine whether the boy was working at the site. But its investigator is checking to ensure that the site is safe for visitors as well as employees, according to Roberta Ellis, the vice-president of investigation policies.

She said the inspector will be looking at whether the company's training and supervision for new and young workers is adequate.

The tragedy has parallels with the death of a 13-year-old in Surrey, who was crushed by sheets of drywall while he was visiting his father's work site in February.

But in the Cranbrook case, the question needs to be asked whether the boy really was only visiting the site or whether he was or had been working at the site.

It is not uncommon for boys from Bountiful to work at various logging and forestry companies owned by group members. When the provincial curriculum still required high school students to try out different jobs, boys from the government-funded, independent school in Bountiful were routinely sent to forestry companies.

Boys and a few girls who have left the sect say they started working as young as 14 or 15 - working around dangerous equipment, sometimes without proper safety equipment.

Creston Mayor Joe Snopek has raised concerns about Bountiful companies using children to do dangerous work in the past, such as stripping shingles off roofs without protective gear or working on a fencing project at the local airport.

This week, Snopek said that small, family-run companies do not appear to have to follow the same kind of rules that bigger employers such as the municipalities do.

Whether we'll ever really find out what happened to the young Blackmore boy is an open question since the boy and the company's owners are all members of the reclusive, polygamist sect.

Yet even if he was working at the site, there is nothing illegal. Children that age can work in dangerous jobs in this province.

In fact, the Liberal government created the perfect conditions for children to be put into risky jobs. In 2001, it introduced a so-called training wage that allows employers to pay inexperienced workers 25 per cent less.

Then, in 2003, it substantially changed the youth employment regulations. With the permission of only one parent, children as young as 12 can work up to 35 hours a week even when school is in session.

The only places children can't work are mines, bars or taverns. Yet, it's forestry where the work is the most dangerous.

Forestry workers are three times more likely to die than workers in any other high-risk industries. And their injuries are more likely to result in long-term disability than injuries in construction, manufacturing or even mining.

Every year, an average of 22 workers die and 92 are severely injured in the provincial forestry industry even though the total number of forestry workers has been - and is expected to continue - declining every year.

Since the youth employment rules have changed, the percentage of workers injured who are under 25 has risen steadily and now accounts for nearly one in five compensation claims.

B.C. Auditor-General John Doyle blamed the provincial government for these horrible statistics in a report released in January, saying that it has downloaded responsibility for safety to small, independent contractors and self-employed people who are incorporated as companies.

"These smaller firms generally lack the knowledge, organization and financial resources to meet safety responsibilities," Doyle's report says. "For the smallest companies, the incentives to take risks with worker safety exist particularly as contracting is highly competitive and requires no safety infrastructure pre-qualification to bid."

But even assuming that Clancy Blackmore - like the 13-year-old Surrey boy - was only visiting his father's work site, something needs to done.

It seems only sensible that no one, and especially no children, should be allowed unsupervised access to high-risk work sites.

And if company owners and managers won't write their own rules and enforce them or if parents won't, then the government must step in and do it for them for the sake of all children.

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