Photo: Japji Anna Bas
I often do work at heights, but this time I’m nervous. My job as a construction electrician involves tasks with managed risk, and working on this elevated lift platform is no different. (Picture this: a forklift, but instead of forks there is a cage where the human operator stands to use as a work platform. It is extended all the way to the top and I am reaching out to install pipes that will later be filled with electrical wires.) It's just about lunchtime, I finish my task and touch the joystick to descend. Snap!
The cable holding up the lift breaks, and after plunging uncontrolled for about three feet, it catches itself on a second cable. Stranded 35 feet in the air, the adrenaline courses through my body. All I can think is, I am alive.
I feel eerily calm and focused as I plan my rescue. Eventually, a co-worker drives a second lift over and we descend safely to the ground. It’s then that I think of my seven-year-old daughter.
I am a single mom with full custody. In the days leading up to the accident, my biggest concern was how difficult it was to find a last-minute babysitter, so I could work this overtime shift. I usually try hard not to think about getting hurt on the job, but now it's the only thing on my mind. My brothers were young when our mother died, so I’ve seen what happens in a loving, low-income family when someone is suddenly gone.
The construction industry is one of the most dangerous sectors in North America. Falls are the number one cause of critical injury and death for construction workers, and more than 40,000 workers a year are hurt in falls across Canada.
Electrocution is also a very real danger—28 percent of all electrocutions at work in Ontario are either electricians or electrician apprentices. Incidents like mine are common, and while I work as safely as possible, I can’t control what others do—if someone else makes a mistake I might not have the chance to save myself or if a lift is faulty and has a cable that snaps, it's out of my control.
My daughter worries about me at work, and was especially scared by the lift incident. “I know you didn’t tell me, but I heard you talking to another adult,” she says in her small voice late at night.
She asks me not to go to work. She asks me to find another job.
I don’t know what to tell her. The truth is that while this might be someone’s dream job, it's not mine. There are aspects of my job that I like—the decent salary and benefits that allow me to survive as a single mom. I like that I get to do challenging, highly skilled work. I read blueprints, I splice wires, I build important infrastructure, like subway stations, hospitals and social housing.
I am proud to be a pioneer in a trade and in an industry that still has very few women. (In 2015, Statistics Canada reported only 2.5 percent of electrician apprenticeships were completed by women—with about three percent in Ontario. In the construction industry in general, women account for around three percent of the workforce.)
As an electrician, I make a higher wage than any other job I could do, and this higher wage is largely based on the danger and difficulty of the job. I am good at working in stressful situations that require both physical strength, intelligence and decisiveness, and this is why I’m good at my job. I argue with myself that it’s worth the risks. I want my daughter to see that women can do any job.
But for the most part, I take these risks because, for now, I have to. There is no other pay cheque coming in, no other backup. I can’t get sick or miss work or make a mistake.
It’s not a choice I take lightly. It’s one that I know many other moms have to face, too.
I try to make peace with the risks I take because nothing is guaranteed. Life is so precious and so unpredictable, it can be hard to know the right move. And for single parents, every decision and risk is amplified.
So when I think about my daughter and my work, I sometimes think about getting out, and what other options I may have. But I have to plan my escape calmly and deliberately because if I fall, we don’t have a safety net.
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