Protecting Our Future: Young Worker Safety on the Job

Encourage young workers to ask questions about tasks or procedures that are unclear or not understood.

Getting that first job is an exciting time. For the young worker, there's the euphoria of disposable income combined with the confidence boost of learning someone other than a family member or coach is willing to give them a chance. Nowhere on the radar are there thoughts of being injured, maimed, or even worse during that initial foray into the workforce. But grim statics show there's reason for concern. And it's the collective responsibility of all involved—employers, parents, educators, and the young workers—to take accountability to ensure that first job doesn't end in tragedy.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration views "young workers" as employees under the age of 25. Assistant Secretary of Labor Dr. David Michaels pointed out in a June 24, 2014, U.S. Department of Labor blog that young workers are twice as likely to be injured on the job as older workers. OSHA statistics also reveal that one teenaged worker is injured on the job every nine minutes. And when it comes to workplace fatalities, where even one is one too many, in 2014, 351 young workers were killed on the job, with 21 of the victims younger than 18.

Why are young workers so much more likely to be injured on the job? This question makes me reflect back on my workplace injuries. I’ve been injured to the point of needing emergency room treatment twice in the past 36 years, and both incidents occurred prior to me turning 21. The first event required stitches after I took a rock to the head on an excavation work site. Hard hats were readily available and we were encouraged, but not required, to wear them. After the stitches, I was a hard hat convert. The second incident resulted in a tetanus shot. I stepped on a nail while assisting on a maintenance project at a manufacturing facility. From what I remember, safety footwear with puncture resistant midsoles was not worn; they were definitely not required at that facility. After that incident, I watched more closely where I stepped.

What insights do I glean from my reflections? First, the type of work I did in my younger days exposed me to a greater potential for injury than the desk and cubicle environment I’ve navigated for the vast majority of my working years. Second, until the rock dropped on my head (like Newton's apple), the thought of getting hurt at work never crossed my mind. I certainly wasn’t an educated advocate for my own personal safety. Lastly, job safety training wasn't provided by my employers in those early work settings. 

My personal observations closely mirror the reasons safety experts believe young workers are at greater risk on the job. Some of the reasons identified include that young workers:

  • Generally have more physically demanding jobs;
  • Lack experience in the job or task they're asked to perform;
  • Often don't receive adequate safety and health training for the job;
  • Are less likely to speak-up and question what they're being asked to do; and
  • May not be aware of their rights on the job.

The statics paint a troubling portrait regarding young worker safety, and we have an understanding of why young workers are at greater risk. Now, what can employers, parents, teachers, and the young workers themselves do to help turn the tide?

First off, employers need to be aware of the rules that restrict those under the age of 18 from performing certain jobs or job functions. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) includes youth employment provisions designed to protect young workers by limiting the types of jobs they can perform. It also limits the number of hours and/or times of the day they can work. With a few exceptions, those under 18 are prohibited from performing jobs involving:

  • Forklift and other power-driven hoisting equipment operation;
  • Manufacturing or storing explosives;
  • Any driving by 16-year-olds and certain driving for 17-year-olds and being an outside helper on a motor vehicle;
  • Coal mining and all other mining;
  • Logging and sawmilling, forest fire prevention, forest fire fighting, timber tract services, and forestry services;
  • Power-driven woodworking machines;
  • Exposure to radioactive substances and to ionizing radiation;
  • Power-driven metal-forming, punching, and shearing machines;
  • Meat packing and meat and poultry processing, including using power-driven meat slicing machines in retail and food service establishments;
  • Power-driven circular saws, band saws, and guillotine shears;
  • Wrecking, demolition, and ship breaking operations;
  • Roofing occupations and all work on or about a roof; and
  • Excavation operations.

There are additional restrictions for employees under the age of 16. Any employer who has or is considering bringing on workers younger than 18 needs to closely review the requirements of the FLSA found in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title 29, Part 570.

In addition to following the requirements of the FLSA, employers should stress the importance of safety with their young employees. Frequently remind them, from the interview on, what the statistics tell us about the elevated injury risks for workers under 25. Have a couple stories of real-world mishaps to share that involve young workers performing a similar job. Unfortunately, a quick Google search will provide many examples. The goal is to keep safety top of mind with examples that are relatable to young workers.

On its "Young Workers: You Have Rights!" resource page, OSHA shares the following responsibilities employers have to their young workers:

  • Ensure that young workers receive training to recognize hazards and are competent in safe work practices. Training should be in a language and vocabulary that workers can understand and should include prevention of fires, accidents, and violent situations and what to do if injured.
  • Implement a mentoring or buddy system for new young workers. Have an adult or experienced young worker answer questions and help the new young worker learn the ropes of a new job.
  • Encourage young workers to ask questions about tasks or procedures that are unclear or not understood. Tell them whom to ask.
  • Remember that young workers are not just "little adults." You must be mindful of the unique aspects of communicating with young workers.
  • Ensure that equipment operated by young workers is both legal and safe for them to use. Employers should label equipment that young workers are not allowed to operate.
  • Tell young workers what to do if they get injured on the job.

Communication is the key when it comes to the employer's crucial role in young worker safety. It's vital that safety is a consistent part of the conversation between the young worker and his or her supervisor. And the employer must continually reinforce the importance of asking questions for understanding so the young worker becomes comfortable reaching out when they feel the need.

For the parents of teen or young workers still at home, it's important to ask a lot of questions. Make sure "safety" is given equal billing with "wage" and "hours" during employment conversations. When prepping youngsters for those first interviews, encourage them to ask safety-related questions. And once they get that first job, ask some probing questions to get a clear understanding of what they’re doing and whether there could be any safety red flags:

  • Have they received any safety training?
  • Is their work environment clean?
  • Is there potential exposure to hazardous materials?
  • Are they working in close proximity to others, and does their supervisor check in regularly?
  • If it's a retail establishment, what’s the employer's robbery protocol?

In addition to asking questions, OSHA offers some additional ways parents can support their young workers:

  • Report hazards. Help your young worker report hazards to managers or, if necessary, to OSHA if a work environment seems unsafe.
  • Watch for signs of concern. Is a job taking too much of a physical or mental toll on your young worker? How is your child's performance at school? A loss of interest in or energy for school could mean the job is too demanding. Other signs of concern could include increased stress levels, anxiety, fatigue, and depression.

Again, just like with employers, communication is the key at home. Parents must keep safety as a consistent element in their regular conversations with their children about work.

Teachers and school systems have the opportunity to lay a lifetime foundation for employment safety awareness. OSHA encourages educators to incorporate information about workers' rights and occupational safety and health hazards into their middle school and high school curriculum. Safety and safe practices must be a core component of all vocational study classes or programs. And for those educational outreach programs, where schools have partnered with businesses to allow students to receive some real-world work experience in a certain field, educators must ensure workplace safety is priority one when it comes to vetting the business partners.

To aid educators in developing their school district's employment safety curriculum, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) created a "Youth@Work: Talking Safety" resource page. The page offers links for each state with instructions for educators and a PowerPoint presentation that easily can be tailored to the specific objectives of the school district. OSHA also offers a host of resources for educators on the "Young Workers: You Have Rights!" page.

Young Workers
While many have a hand in ensuring that young workers leave the job each day as healthy as they arrive, the ultimate responsibility for safety lies with the young workers themselves. Young workers must understand that they're their own safety advocates. They must take seriously the safety training they receive and ask questions for clarity. If no safety training is offered or they feel the employer's commitment to safety is lax, they need to raise the flag with their employer. And they must know what recourse they have if things are not resolved and/or where to turn if they're not comfortable raising concerns to their employer.

Young workers must understand their rights under the OSH Act. Like all workers, they have the right to:

  • Work in a safe place;
  • Receive relevant safety and health training;
  • Ask questions for greater clarity or if something seems unsafe;
  • Use and be trained on required safety gear, such as hard hats, goggles, and ear plugs;
  • Exercise workplace safety rights without retaliation or discrimination; and
  • File a confidential complaint with OSHA if there is a belief of a serious hazard or the employer is not following OSHA standards.

Lastly, it's important for all of us to remember that not every job is a match for a worker’s skill set or comfort level. Sometimes it’s best to just move on and try something new. Better to find a new job than to become a tragic statistic.

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This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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