Christopher Lawrence was working at a gravel-crushing site near Drumheller, Alta., this month when he became entangled in a conveyor belt and was killed. He is one of dozens of workers who will be fatally injured on an Alberta job site this year, but dying two days shy of his 16th birthday, he will likely be the youngest.
"He wanted to experience the world," his grandmother, Doreen Mardian, said in an interview from her home in Red Deer.
Christopher's death on July 19 is prompting questions about Alberta labour laws that allow children as young as 15 to work on any job site – including not just retail stores or fast-food restaurants, but heavy construction sites, mines and oil and gas operations.
While Alberta businesses grapple with what they say is a worker shortageand scramble for any and all available hands, labour advocates fear the province's strong economy, heavy industrial base and permissive labour laws will push inexperienced teenagers into more physical, risky types of work without strong government oversight.
"We know there's great opportunity," said Siobhan Vipond, secretary treasurer for the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"But what rules do we have in place to ensure these kids come back at the end of the day?"
Alberta's laws for young people stand apart from other provinces. Adolescents between the ages of 12 and 14 are allowed to work in offices and restaurant kitchens, provided they follow certain rules that restrict their hours, and keep them from serving liquor or using slicers and deep fryers. Other provinces such as Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan don't allow teens to do some of the most labour-intensive work – such as construction or mining – until they are at least 16. But Alberta's rules allow teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17 to do almost any job, provided it is supervised and falls within a prescribed set of hours.
"Yes, Alberta is different. We allow it," said Brookes Merritt, a spokesman for the province's department of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour.
Whether it's a question of experience, judgment or supervision, younger workers are more likely to be injured than older workers, according to the Alberta government's own figures. Unions say the province's labour laws are lax, and Ms. Vipond said targeted, unannounced inspections of industrial workplaces that hire 15- to 17-year-olds would help the situation. She said the government needs to move away from a complaints-based system because both teenagers and new Canadians – two categories of workers Alberta has in spades – are less likely to speak out about an unsafe work environment.
Mr. Merritt said the province puts much of the onus to provide a safe workplace and training for younger workers on employers. If they don't, prosecutions follow. He also noted that a major review of Alberta's employment standards code – last completed in 1988 – is expected this fall, and the government received significant input on the employment of young workers.
He said the government said it is targeting its inspections to higher-risk work sites, such as the residential roofing sector this year. Last year it targeted the mining industry – a category that includes the gravel business.
Ms. Mardian believes there should be supervision and clear safety provisions on job sites, but says it's a good thing to have young people in the world of work.
She said Christopher, who had been living in the small Alberta town of Innisfail, was a high-energy teenager who liked work more than he liked school. He wanted to be a heavy-duty mechanic, and Ms. Mardian said it was unclear whether he was going to return to his studies in the fall.
"As a family, we're very devastated," Ms. Mardian said. "But we do not want it to hinder other young people who want to get into construction, who want to try it out."
Darryl Wiebe, manager of Arjon Construction Ltd. – the gravel-processing company that had hired Christopher this summer – said in an interview that Christopher was working with four other workers, all more senior, at the time he was killed.
In a statement, Mr. Wiebe said the company is working to determine how Christopher got trapped, and how to prevent it from happening again.
"Our company has never before experienced a workplace accident of this kind, and we are shocked and saddened," he said.
"Christopher was a hard-working, motivated young man and we were all privileged to know him."