When Nick Perry was 19, he took a job that broke his back.
He was working in a lumberyard to make some extra cash. A stack of boards fell on to his back.
The incident left him paralyzed.
Now 25, the tall redhead has blue tattoos up and down his arms, four hoop earrings through each ear and a long pink scar that snakes around his midriff.
The tattoos and earrings are for style, but the scar is from a 13-hour surgery where doctors had to move his internal organs so they could access his crushed vertebrae and partially severed spinal column.
“I never thought that it would happen to me,” said Perry, who now walks with a slight limp.
“Young workers — when we’re out there, we’re taken advantage of,” he told a class of Grade 10 students at Porter Creek Secondary on Wednesday afternoon.
The Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety board flew Perry from Victoria, BC, to Whitehorse to talk to local students about workplace safety and their rights as employees.
“We know that younger workers are six times more likely to be hurt or killed on the job than more experienced workers,” said compensation board spokesperson Mark Hill.
“We know that younger workers tend not to be aware of the hazards or their rights.”
In the Yukon, 155 young workers were reported injured on the job in 2005.
(The figures for 2006 are not in yet.)
“The 155 is the reported number,” said Hill. “We know from talks with young workers that that represents a fraction of the injuries.”
Many go unreported for a number of reasons, said Hill.
Either the worker is embarrassed; they don’t know how to report their injury or they are pressured by their boss to not report it.
So this week, Perry was telling students he hoped his story would not be repeated.
In 2001, Perry was sick of working at Subway and he was eager for the change and extra cash a job in construction would bring.
“When I started working there, there was no training — people showed me how to move stuff around the yard and that was it,” he said.
“It was slack ass — I think that’s what appealed to me the most.”
One day, six months after starting the job, he was using a hydraulic lift to move a stack of boards from one side of the yard to the other.
While he was working the gears he felt the load shift. He left the driver’s seat to figure out the problem.
“I stood there and I assessed the situation, like, five times,” he said.
Then he asked a buddy for a hand. His friend got behind the gears and Perry told him to drop the load.
But the gear engaged too quickly, its hydraulics didn’t kick in and the lift, which should have slowly lowered the boards to the ground, dropped them like a ton of bricks.
“The sheets snapped my back and I could feel them go into my back and I couldn’t feel my legs,” he said.
“I was under the load, folded in half with all the material on top of me, screaming.”
Perry had incomplete paraplegia, which means he was incapacitated from the waist down.
With the injury came a laundry list of accessories — a wheelchair, a leg brace, a catheter and a pack of adult diapers.
“I thought, ‘This sucks, I’m 20 years old and I have to go back to wearing diapers and wetting my pants — what the fuck happened to me?’” he said.
And it meant missing out on a lot of things that are important to a teenager.
“If you’re not an attractive guy girls don’t want to get with you anyways, so how attractive is it that I’m in a fucking wheelchair and I can’t get it up on my own anyways?” said Perry.
“I can’t go to a bar because I see these people dancing and I think, ‘Fuck, I missed out on that,’ he said.
“That’s when you start debating whether you want to live anymore.”
It took him three years, two rods, six screws and caging around the front of his spine, spanning four vertebrae, for him to walk again.
The physical scars are terrible, but the emotional ones are even worse, he said.
It affected his friends, his family and his co-workers.
“The buddy who dropped the load on me woke up in a cold sweat for weeks afterward hearing me screaming.”
Perry’s fear-tactics made some of the students sit up and pay attention.
“I found it changed my whole perspective on the way you gotta work,” said 15-year-old Tanner Kulych, who works in construction during the summer.
“I wouldn’t want to go through what he’s had to, so I might think things out a little more at work.”
And Kulych’s classmate Mike Richardson deals with sharp knives and slippery floors on a daily basis at the family-run Wharf on Fourth.
“It gets kind of sketchy, but we do have proper training there,” he said.
When Perry began in the workforce he didn’t know his rights.
“I was so intimidated and scared,” he said.
“My boss was a big bear of a guy that kept barking orders at me and I thought that if I asked questions he’d think that I was incompetent and tell me to take a hike,” said Perry.
Employees have a “right to know” about safety hazards or risks they might be taking during the day.
“If you’re unsure about anything, ask your boss,” Perry told the students.
Employees have a “right to participate” in things like safety meetings.
“Big or small — if you go into your workplace and ask if you can meet for a half-hour and talk about concerns, hopefully you’re boss will say, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea, you’re a good employee.’
“It’s really, really important, otherwise you’re going to end up in a situation like myself or it may be even worse.”
The third right, and the best right of all, according to Perry, is the “right to refuse unsafe work.”
In 2006, five Yukoners died from workplace injuries and illness. And so far, in 2007, more than 400 workers have been injured on the job.
Saturday is a national Day of Mourning for workers killed on the job.
There will be a ceremony at 12:30 p.m. at the Elijah Smith government building.
Check out Perry at www.demandsafety.ca.