There’s laughter and chatter as the high school students shuffle into Mount Tahoma’s auditorium to hear Matt Pomerinke speak. He wears a black short-sleeved shirt, which makes his prosthetic forearm and mechanical hand clearly visible.
After brief introductions and a video, he steps forward and the noise quickly dies down as the kids notice that Pomerinke is not their typical speaker. He’s there to talk with them about workplace safety and the rights of young workers. It’s an extremely personal issue for him. Pomerinke lost a large part of his arm when he was pulled into machinery while working at a sawmill near his hometown of Longview. He was just 21 at the time.
Spring is often the time that high school students are looking for work. For most, it will be their first venture into working for someone other than Mom or Dad. Many are so thrilled to get hired that they’ll do just about anything asked of them on the job – regardless of if they’re trained or ready. Washington State’s Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) is trying to change that through its Injured Young Workers Speakers Program, of which Pomerinke plays a key role.
Nationally, 230,000 young workers are hurt on the job every year; in Washington, 79 are injured every working day. Some don’t survive. In 2014, six young adults under 25 lost their lives in the course of their work in our state. One of them was 19-year-old Bradley Hogue. It was his second day on the job spreading beauty bark when he was told to get into the back of a hopper to keep the bark moving through. It was an extremely hazardous situation. He was pulled into an augur and died. The company was cited and fined for several safety violations in connection with his death.
Pomerinke pulls no punches during his presentation; the students lean in and hang on his words. He talks about the pressure to fit in at a new job, the importance of training, and how a brief moment or a quick decision can have a lifetime of consequences.
He works fulltime at a paper mill now, but also visits more than 40 schools a year helping L&I spread the word about safety for young workers. Pomerinke tells the kids who are thinking about working to remember what’s important to them – friends, family, even a pet. Then he says it’s up to them to do everything they can to be safe at work, so they can go home as healthy as they were when they went to work that day.
L&I and Pomerinke advise teens and parents that young workers have a right to refuse work assignments that they feel are unsafe. They have a right to be trained and taught safe work practices by employers. And it’s absolutely okay for workers to ask questions of their supervisors.
Parents and students can find out information about the Young Injured Workers Speakers Program and about rights and laws involving teens at work by visiting http://lni.wa.gov.