The Young and the Reckless?

LATE last year, two armed robbers stormed a Miami pizza shop, demanding cash and then fatally shooting an employee. The incident hit close enough to home for Steven Erekson, a 16-year old who works at a shop in the same chain less than 60 miles north of Miami, to take notice--but not close enough to make him worry or take any long-term related action. "For a while, I definitely tried to pay more attention to the customers, looking for an indication that something might be wrong or strange," Erekson said. "I also reminded myself of where the button was to call the police."

Today, Erekson continues to make pizzas, answer phones, and perform other tasks for the restaurant, and he said that he still feels very safe at work. "This is not a high risk job. I've burned myself on the ovens a couple of times, but it's not a big deal."

The U.S. Department of Labor, OSHA, and other safety organizations disagree. Every day, 210 teenagers are injured seriously enough on the job to require medical treatment. Seventy teens die each year from work-related injuries, according to OSHA. DOL reports retail and service jobs are the settings for nearly 75 percent of the injuries. A 1999 NIOSH study found 44,800 occupational injuries to teen restaurant industry workers; burns topped the list.

A spokesperson for OSHA said the disproportionate number of injuries among this age group has resulted in an aggressive campaign to increase job safety and health awareness for Erekson and the thousands of other teens who work. The agency's "Teen Workers" safety and health Web site is one of the latest contributions to DOL's new initiative on young workers.

Teen Safety Web site
The Education Development Center estimates 80 percent of youths are employed at some point before they leave high school. While working can teach teens about responsibility and money management, increase their self-esteem, and help them become independent, many are working in unsafe conditions without proper training or supervision. Injuries and death often occur when a teen is performing a task prohibited by state or federal laws.

OSHA's teen safety site aims to educate teen workers, their parents, employers, and educators on workplace safety. It features fact sheets on teens' workplace rights and responsibilities, including the number of hours they are allowed to work and age restrictions. Text that is easy to read and understand informs visitors of teen workplace injury statistics and which jobs or industries tend to be more dangerous. How to avoid injury is explained.

The site features similar information for parents but encourages them to discuss work issues and work safety with their teen children. Educators are typically responsible for the signing of work permits, so the site's educator page provides applicable legal information. Employers also can access the site for legal information and tips on implementing increased safety training. Links to additional resources include a link to file a complaint with OSHA.

Is It Working?
There is no question the information available on OSHA's "Teen Workers" safety and health page is important. The real question is whether or not its message is reaching the intended audience. Announcements of the site's release have graced the pages of several industry trade publications, but few teens will ever read them. The OSHA spokesperson said Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao held a news conference for high school newspaper editors from around the country, informing them of the new youth initiative.

Still, it appears the information is slow to spread. "If work safety information was made available online, I might go and look at it once," Erekson said. "But, it's still probably the same information that they have posted on the wall at work."

OSHA and DOL are working on new ways to spread the word about this and other safety sites. They are preparing more outreach and educational materials designed to protect young workers on the job. Yet getting the safety message across is likely to be a challenge. There's a reason why the word "teenager" strikes fear in the heart of many--the attitude. "It's really fair to say that young people tend to have fewer fears," the spokesperson for OSHA said. In a work environment, "they're usually concerned with making a good impression, so they're afraid to say something is wrong and sometimes don't even know that it is."

Erekson seems to fit that description. "Even though I've never been in a situation that required it, I don't think I'd ever confront or turn in a supervisor for a safety thing," he said. "Those are things that you just have to learn to deal with on your own."

Impressions and fears aside, let's not forget financial motivators. According to a National Consumers League survey, 62 percent of teens aged 14 to 18 receive most of their money from a job. The desire to earn money is sometimes more important to a lot of teens than abiding by work-related laws and/or safety regulations.

"I'm still really concerned about doing well in school, and I don't need for a lot of spending money yet," Erekson said. "But, I think most of the kids I work with would do whatever for as long as someone would let them because they'd get paid more."

Their willingness to work long hours with no complaints can make teens dream employees for many employers. A Rutgers University report found that American businesses employ 150,000 teens in violation of hazardous job and hour restriction laws, saving themselves an estimated $155 million per year.

The cause is more than worthy, but OSHA and DOL appear to have a long road ahead of them.

The teen safety and health site can be accessed from DOL's YouthRules! Web site (visit www.dol.gov), or through the OSHA Web site (www.osha.gov) under "Youth."

This article originally appeared in the May 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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