by Tom Zytaruk/ Black Press
He had a gut feeling something was wrong. Boy, was he right. Matthew Bowcott was a cook, working for $10 an hour at a restaurant in Langley. He was 19 and eager to impress.
He had just emptied the deep fryers and was carrying a 10-gallon pot filled with 375-degree cooking oil across the kitchen floor when he slipped on the wet ceramic tile floor.
“I had a vision. I saw myself falling with that pot of oil right before it happened but I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t think it was a warning,” he recalled. “I just shrugged it off.
“As soon as that oil hit my skin I heard the sound when you drop french fries in a deep fryer. That sound of sizzling skin.“
His 14-year-old co-worker Danny turned a hose on him “That bought me some time.“
Three days earlier, Danny had completed a first aid course where he learned that running cold water on a burn wound would help stop the burning process.
“My body never went into shock. I felt every single thing,” Bowcott said. “It hurt bad.
Really, really, really badly, it hurt. I didn’t really even want to be alive.”
His tragedy could have been avoided.
“I guess their labour costs were a little too high that week, so my employer asked me and Danny to finish up a little early because they didn’t want to pay for both of us to the end of the night,” Bowcott explained.
“So now our procedures that we would do at completely different times, they were done at the same time. Danny was doing the floors at the same time I was transferring that oil into that big pasta pot.“
Bowcott would carry that pot every night, he said, but that particular night the floor was wet. He ended up on life support, suffering from first, second and third degree burns to 43 per cent of his body, and was in Vancouver General Hospital’s burn unit for 29 days.
The searing oil had missed his eyes, nose and mouth by a quarter of an inch. Had he swallowed it, his organs would have burned and he would have died in agony.
At the emergency ward he was dead for 70 seconds on account of the third-degree burn on his chest over his heart, but Dr. Trevor Newton brought him back.
“He’s my angel, dude.“
It happened on June 28, 2002, a Friday night.
Bowcott, now 33, shared his cautionary story with students this week at Frank Hurt secondary school in Newton as part of WorkSafeBC’s Young Worker Speakers Program, which aims to raise young people’s awareness of their right to refuse to do unsafe work and promote job safety.
“I’m here, I’m alive and I get to tell the tale,” he said. “You guys need to hear some stuff, right.
“It’s almost like I kick myself every day for not trusting that gut feeling…I would go back and I would tell that employer
‘I’m not doing that job.’ I would say no, and I would say ‘You can’t make me do it, because it’s unsafe,” because I have rights. That’s what I would change.“
He opened with a video re-creation of the accident and showed the students graphic slides of his injuries while he was being treated in hospital.
“Some of these images are going to be gnarly, man,” he told the students. “I’m not kidding, they’re going to be hard to look at.“
He wasn’t kidding. The video, which can be seen on YouTube, also featured an interview with his mom.
“Screaming, you could hear him from one end of the hall to the other,” she recalled. “Nobody wanted to be by that room because of the screaming.
“No parent should ever have to see their child in the ICU fighting for his life from a stupid work accident that could have been avoided.“
Bowcott said the restaurant was hit with a “big fine and they were instructed, mandated, to change their way.“
He sought to impress three main ideas on the students to embrace when they enter the workforce.
“We have the right to say no,” he said. “We have the right to refuse unsafe work.
“Guys, do you want to work for an employer that would threaten to take your job away for you being safe or saving somebody else’s life? No, we don’t want to work for those guys, right?” He told the students they also have the right to ask for proper training if asked to perform a task.
“Your employer, whatever they’re asking you to do, you have a right to do it safely. You guys have the right not just to ask for training, you have the right to demand it. Demand training.“
The third idea he stressed is workers’ right to know about any hazard on a job site that can potentially harm or kill you.
“Do you think I would have liked to know that the floor was wet in the other room? Yes.“
“You guys will know when you’re going to need some gloves, or a set of safety glasses. You guys will know when the right time will be to put your hand up. And with that, you guys, I will promise you, you will save someone’s life.“
According to WorkSafeBC, 6,900 young workers – an average of 19 each day -were injured on the job in B.C. last year.
“So you guys need to know your rights,” he told the students.”We need to be safe in our jobs.“