Jessica Vliegenhart was nearing her 21st birthday, when a particularly bad day at a summer job took her off a celebratory track and changed her future.
“Another fire-fighter and I were in a truck patrolling a back country dirt road (in the Northwest Territories) at the fire’s edge,” the Kamloops woman said to a crowd of 200, who had gathered in Ben Lee Park Friday for the Annual day of Mourning.
“Suddenly the truck fishtailed, the driver lost control and I was thrown out of the truck.”
The first thing she remembered was a searing pain.
“It was so bad, I thought I landed on an axe,” she said.
“Being paralyzed doesn’t kill you, but it really hurts.”
A “laundry list” of injuries amounted to three months in hospital and countless operations. Then came the hard work.
“It was pretty much like starting life from square one,” she said, adding it was nearly impossible to do simple things like hold soap, or put on pants.
By the time she had rudimentary tasks mastered, she had to take on the challenge of re-entering her life and going back to university in Kamloops.
“I had to sleep after every class,” she said. “I was only 22, but I felt 80.”
In the six years that passed, she got into the groove of a new life, fit with a law degree and skills in wheelchair basketball— something she’ll represent Canada doing in the 2012 Paralympics —but her identity changed.
To most people she meets, she’s “the girl in the wheelchair”.
She’s also a woman with an clear view on the working world.
“Nobody should die or be hurt because of their job,” she said.
“Everyone should tell their boss when they see anything that gets in the way of safety. And society must support them when they do so.”
It was a message that resonated with the crowd who assembled, who broke from somber silence to clap in support of that statement.
Recent deaths at Prince George and Burns Lake mills cast a pall over the annual event, highlighting that workplace safety isn’t as evolved as it should be in this province.
Already, the death toll in B.C. is high.
In 2011 142 people died as a result of their jobs, and as a Workplace B.C. representative said, “when a person dies because of their workplace we’re all diminished.”
“We lose something as a workplace and a society because we know in our heart of hearts, these accidents could have been avoided.”
Those gathered were asked to think about being vigilant about on-the-job safety, and to pause for a moment to pay homage to those who have suffered because of a lack thereof, this year.
In addition to the ceremony, a bench commemorating those who passed because of work place injuries was unveiled.