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His Son Was Crushed to Death at Work—Now He Fights for Workers' Rights

David Ellis was 18 years old when he was crushed by a cookie dough mixer 20 years ago.

by Anne Gaviola
Apr 26 2019, 6:03pm

All photos via Rob Ellis

Rob Ellis got a phone call that is every parent’s worst nightmare. It happened two decades ago, but he says he still remembers like it was yesterday. His wife told him that their 18-year-old son David had been seriously injured at work and was at the local hospital.

Ellis recalls being greeted by a doctor at the front door. He told him to brace himself for what he was going to see. “He said it was really very bad. I was going down the hallway and my knees began to shake,” he told VICE.

What he saw took his breath away. “His bed is full of blood. His shoes are full of blood. He’s gasping for air. There’s nurses on one side, doctors on the other side. And you just want to pick him up and take him home where he’d be safe.” But he couldn’t take David back to their home in Burlington, Ontario.

Six days later, David died in hospital as a result of injuries he sustained from an industrial mixing machine at the bakery where he worked part-time. It was his second day on the job.

This tragedy happened twenty years ago, but it reflects a reality that remains. According to the Workplace Insurance Safety Board (WSIB), young and inexperienced workers like David, typically between the ages of 18 and 25, are the most vulnerable when it comes to workplace injuries and deaths.

“They do have a higher risk than older or more experienced workers,” WSIB President and CEO Tom Teahen told VICE. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a lot of young people in that age group enter into the workforce with a certain sense of invincibility, a belief that they’re not vulnerable, and our stats would say that’s not true at all.”

Last year nearly 31,000 workers between the ages of 15 and 24 were injured on the job in Ontario alone. Injuries were most prevalent in the service sector, for jobs in restaurants and retail stores. The construction and manufacturing sectors also saw a higher number of incidents. Sixty percent of the claims processed by the WSIB were from male workers. The most common injuries are sprains, strains, cuts or lacerations, bruises, contusions and concussions.

Each province has its own government body tasked with tracking and managing workplace hazards so getting a clear snapshot of the stats across the country requires some digging. Statistics for the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC) show that new workers have a higher rate of injury, especially during their first few months of employment. And the youngest workers are no exception. Every day in Canada, more than 40 workers under the age of 19 are injured on the job.

Some young workers, like David, pay the price with their life. Between 2012 and 2016, 30 workers across Ontario, aged 15 to 24, died in work-related events. In David’s case, like in many others, it could have been prevented.

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The Ellis family, taken in 1998. David (far left) was 17 at the time.

On his second day on the job, David was working unsupervised. No one told him that 18 months before he started working there, a government inspector had warned the company that the mixer lacked proper safety equipment and told them to do something about it, which they didn’t.

Ellis says his son didn’t grasp how dangerous that summer job actually was. “Dave really wanted to please the boss and put his head down and work hard. But my son had very little chance at all. There was nobody around to help him out. So he lost his life. The government came back in, found the company guilty, 47 counts against them and my son’s supervisor was sent to jail.”

As a tribute to his son, and all the others who’ve been put in harm’s way on the job, Ellis runs a non-profit called MySafeWork to raise public awareness about the importance of workplace safety for young people and for newcomers to Canada—people who may not realize their rights. Including the right to proper training, equipment, supervision and the right to refuse work if it seems unsafe.

Ellis says it can be daunting to ask a lot of questions and assert yourself when you’re new to a job. Especially if, like David, you’re eager to please and don’t want to make trouble. “Don’t wait until you’ve been in the job for a couple of weeks to start asking questions because by then it might be too late.”

There are videos and tools available online, specifically aimed at young workers, including this list of 12 Tips For Staying Safe At Work. Sunday is the National Day of Mourning across Canada, to commemorate workers who have been killed, injured or suffered illness because of workplace-related hazards and exposures.

With many students starting summer jobs in the coming weeks and months, it’s a timely reminder for those who need the most protection. Workers who are new to a job are three times more likely to be injured within their first month on the job.

Ellis says it’s critical for young workers to understand the importance of getting the right orientation, training and supervision from the very start. It’s a message he’s spreading to as many young students, recent graduates and apprentices as he can.

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Ellis started MySafeWork to prevent people from getting killed, injured, and harassed on the job

He does it because it’s the kind of thing that could have made all the difference for David, who had his whole life ahead of him. He was a drummer in a punk rock band called Numb, who loved the Dave Matthews Band and idolized musician Carter Beauford. Helping the homeless was important to him and once a month, he and his buddies bought sleeping bags and food for those less fortunate and hopped on a bus to Hamilton or Toronto to hand them out. He fast-tracked through high school, got good grades and wanted to be an engineer or a lawyer when he grew up.

“Everyday we talk about Dave. And every day we laugh. It brings us a lot of joy and hope but we want to make sure it doesn’t make us bitter and angry. We want to make sure it doesn’t consume us, but drives us forward,” says Ellis.

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