About 90 students taking welding classes at Butte High School received new safety gear last Tuesday, Sept. 11, as part the Montana State Fund’s “Growing a Safer Montana” program.
Denise Bordeleau, who has taught welding at BHS for over 20 years, said Montana is constantly ranked in the top five states with the most workplace accidents. That’s why she applied for the $750 grant last spring, which allowed her to choose the specific equipment her workshop needs to protect students.
“We’ve tried to work with adults to create safer work environments, but it’s not working. A safety attitude has to be learned; we have to develop the culture at a younger age,” Bordeleau said.
The grant program — the Montana State Fund, a group that provides worker compensation and safety education across the state — aims to teach the next generation how to champion safety in the workforce. Since it started in 2017, State Fund has awarded personal protection equipment and safety curriculum binders to nearly 5,000 high school students across the state.
Dan Johnson, a State Fund safety equipment consultant and the grant’s co-manager, said it’s not just about the gear — many workers use personal protective equipment as a crutch when performing dangerous tasks. Johnson hopes that through this program’s curriculum, students will learn how to evaluate these dangerous tasks and brainstorm safer ways to do them instead of relying solely on the protective equipment.
“We want to help students see the big picture and correct unsafe behavior before they enter the workforce,” Johnson said.
Johnson talked about his own experience working in gold mines when he was 19. He said he felt like he had to work to prove himself and didn’t always feel he could speak up if he thought something was unsafe. Many injuries are related to experience, Johnson said, with younger workers getting injured more often and more severely. Based on Bureau of Labor statistics, Johnson said when workers 25 and under are injured, they are three times more likely to visit the emergency room.
“Many young workers don’t have the opportunity to have a strong safety voice. With this program, we want to break that stigma,” Johnson said.
Last week, Johnson and his colleagues with the program delivered safety curriculum binders and handpicked protection equipment to the 2018 award recipients. Bordeleau received 40 pairs of safety glasses, 20 pairs of gloves, almost 300 earplugs, two face shields, flame retardant coveralls, and more. Now preparation for the 2019 grants is underway, Johnson said, with plans to expand and find ways to reach more potential workers.
“We want this program to slowly grow every year so eventually we positively impact all of the high schools in the state,” Johnson said.