Nick Perry talks to Kwalikum Secondary School students about the workplace accident that left him an incomplete paraplegic at the age of 19. — Adam Kveton

From walking and working to years in a wheel chair

Qualicum Beach students get work safety message from incomplete paraplegic

Safety is never an exciting conversation, and Nick Perry will be one of the first people to tell you that.

But his own story of being terribly injured while working at the age of 19 got students at Kwalikum Secondary School to open their eyes, as one student put it.

Perry is a speaker for WorkSafeBC, and travels across Vancouver Island sharing “the worst day of his life.” But it’s a worthy sacrifice, he said, to try and bring down the number of young workers killed and injured in B.C. every year. In 2015, there were 6,900 workers between the ages of 15 and 24 who were injured on the job. That’s 13 per cent of the total, according to WorkSafeBC. Also in 2015, 122 people died due to work-related incidents or disease.

The problem is that change is often reactive — only happening at a workplace after something terrible has happened, said Perry. That’s what happened in his case. But he’s hoping talking to students like the Grade 10’s in Carolin Mattice’s planning class can help to make proactive change.

“We’re trying to create a better cycle, instead of the vicious one that’s been killing young workers and putting them in wheelchairs for life,” he told the class.

Perry recalls that he was excited to go from working at Subway to landing a job at a Victoria lumberyard where his uncle worked. The business didn’t usually hire young workers, but they made an exception for the 19-year-old, and started off paying him under the table, he said.

Training was minimal, but he was nonetheless expected to work on table saws and drive forklifts. He mostly learned on the job, with one employee telling him one way to do things, and another telling him a different way, leaving Perry unsure which way was correct or safe.

That’s if they helped him out at all.

After talking with his manager about difficulty getting help or supervision, they concluded the other employees were likely unhappy he was being paid under the table, so he was offered a legitimate full-time position, and told to bring future problems to his manager.

Perry figured it would be even harder to develop a good working relationship with the employees if he got them chewed out by their boss, so it wasn’t something he planned on doing, he said.

Next his boss asked Perry if he had any friends who he would recommend for a job, and Perry suggested his best friend. He gave him the same 30-minute training he had received. The eye washing station was covered in sawdust, and the first aid kit was mostly filled with finger bandages, said Perry. “I knew where I was working,” he said, but he didn’t want to rock the boat.

Working lots of hours and getting well paid, the job meant independence for him, but in six months, it would cost him his independence.

Picking up a Saturday shift, Perry decided to re-strap some loose MDF boards. Picking up the load with a forklift, he moved it to an open space, but noticed the load had shifted. So he stopped, tried to figure out what was wrong, then went for help. But his uncle was busy with customers, and another employee gave him the same 15 minute promise that always failed to materialize. So he asked his buddy.

With Perry’s friend in the driver’s seat, Perry tried to shift the load to balance it, and then told his buddy to lower it once he gave the OK. Turning around, Perry gave the go ahead, and the boards slipped, rammed into his back and crushed him into the ground, his ears touching his knees, he said.

His friend went into shock, but Perry managed to yell for help, drawing the attention of his uncle and some customers.

The result was Perry became an incomplete paraplegic, with doctors telling him he’d likely be stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Three years of rehab, physiotherapy and determination got Perry walking again, but there remains a long list of things Perry can’t do because of his disability.

To underscore the point, he pulled up his pant leg and showed the catheter he carries in his sock, which he has to insert himself to go to the bathroom.

It hurts a lot, he said.

One of the students in Mattice’s class, Justin Knutson, said, “My eyes opened up,” at Perry’s story. “I was kind of stunned.”

Knutson works at a full-service gas station, and said he feels safe there, though he said he always tells drivers to turn off their car before he will fill them up.

Nonetheless, he said Perry’s story has reminded him that he has to speak up if he sees something unsafe, and not to be afraid to ask for help.

During his talk, Perry explained that while a lot of employers simply don’t take into account what training young workers need, others will intimidate and manipulate young workers.

Chris Raduy, another student, said he’d had a boss like that before, but said he’s pretty aware of his rights and knows he can refuse unsafe work. Still, he said Perry’s talk helped him to realize that even something that seems small and stupid can put you in danger. “It can happen to anyone,” he said.

Asked if she was worried for her students going out into the workforce, many of whom already have, Mattice said “we have smart kids,” as well as mindful local employers, but added teachers are doing their best to be advocates for student safety.

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