Injured at his first job, Labor & Industries speaker talks to youth about workplace safety

Young workers are nearly twice as likely to get hurt on the job

Matt Pomerinke speaks to students about the workplace injury he sustained while working at a sawmill at age 21, resulting in the amputation of his lower left arm. In Washington state, workers ages 16 to 24 are nearly twice as likely to be injured on the job than older employees. (Washington State Department of Labor & Industries photo)

Matt Pomerinke was thrilled when he started his first job as a young man. He considered himself fortunate to land a good position at a local sawmill in Southwest Washington.

People told him he would always remember his first job — they were right, but for the wrong reasons. While trying to dislodge a scrap piece of wood at the mill, his arm was pulled into the unguarded drive chain and crushed. Doctors amputated it just below the elbow. He was 21.

With time and a lot of effort, Pomerinke said, he has adjusted well to the injury. His very active life includes working 48-hour-plus weeks as a papermaker in his hometown of Longview while also making time for family and fun. “I don’t like to sit still,” he said.

Along with family, work and other obligations, Pomerinke has another priority in his busy life. He works with the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, speaking to thousands of teens across the state each year about his injury. The goal is to make sure young workers know the importance of workplace safety so they can avoid injuries like his, or worse.

In Washington, young workers ages 16 to 24 are injured on the job at nearly twice the rate of older workers, and hundreds of teens are hurt on the job every year.

L&I’s Injured Young Workers Speakers Program is working to lower those numbers. It is based on a successful program started over a decade ago by WorkSafeBC in British Columbia, Canada.

Warning: This video includes graphic details of Pomerinke describing his workplace injury. (Washington State Department of Labor & Industries video)

Not wanting to relive the worst day of his life over and over again, Pomerinke was hesitant at first to join forces with L&I.

“I’d like to say I jumped at the opportunity, but in reality I was leaning against it,” he said. “I had no desire to do public speaking. Then I thought about it more, and with my wife’s encouragement, I decided to give it a try.”

That was seven years ago.

Since becoming the primary speaker for the L&I program, he has presented to more than 60,000 students at more than 300 venues, including high schools, skills centers and colleges across Washington. Spring and summer are especially busy.

“Summer is when many young people are getting their first job,” Pomerinke said. “I make it a priority to get to as many schools as I can before the summer job season kicks in.”

What teen workers, parents can do

(Washington State Department of Labor & Industries video)

L&I and Pomerinke urge parents to make sure they know what their young workers are doing on the job. They should ask questions, get the details, and make sure their teens are doing appropriate work for their age, and that they are trained for it.

Last year, 680 teens, age 17 and younger, reported on-the-job injuries in Washington, including:

  • 162 cuts and lacerations.
  • More than 100 sprains and strains.
  • 79 cases of bruises and contusions.

Most of their injuries resulted from slips and falls, burns or being struck by a falling object.

There are reasons teens encounter more injuries, said Josie Bryan, Youth Employment Specialist for L&I.

“While all workers have a right to appropriate training and can refuse unsafe work assignments, teens are often reluctant to ask questions or assert their rights,” Bryan said. “Unfortunately, when they’re trying to impress an employer, some young workers won’t say anything about an assigned task or lack of supervision, even if they’re worried about it.”

During a recent presentation in Everett, Pomerinke emphasized that latter point.

“Not asking questions was a factor in what happened to me,” he said. “I tell the kids, ‘Don’t be like I was; that can lead to this (pointing to his prosthetic).’”

At every talk he gives, Pomerinke leaves the students with three points to remember:

  • Keep in mind what’s important to you when you get home; don’t take safety short cuts at work that may result in you never seeing that again.
  • Know your rights and responsibilities, and what your employer can and cannot ask you to do. If you’re not sure, check L&I’s teen worker webpage.
  • Watch out for each other on the job. If you notice a co-worker doing something that appears unsafe, ask them about it. Either you’ll learn something new, or maybe you just helped prevent a serious accident from happening.

Pomerinke ’s goal is simple: He wants to make a difference.

“I want the kids to remember that a workplace injury can change their life forever,” he said. “It never goes away. I still turn 10 shades of red whenever I have to present, but if I can prevent even one similar injury from happening, then this public speaking gig has been worth it.”

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