Keeping Teen Workers Safe

Proper training, clear communication and consistent oversight can help youths stay safe on the job.

By Alice Andors Jun 1, 2010
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0610cover.gifThis summer, thousands of working teens nationwide will land in hospital emergency rooms to get treated for jobrelated injuries or illnesses.

Research suggests that up to 80 percent of U.S. teens have worked for pay at some time during high school—a higher rate than in any other developed nation. The ranks of teen workers swell during summer months, and the average number of hours worked increases. So does the likelihood of their getting hurt.

Teen workers are far more likely than adults to be injured at work, even though they work fewer hours and are prohibited by law from working in high-risk jobs. The National Infor Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that 200,000 workers younger than 18 are injured on the job each year and that 70,000 are injured seriously enough for a trip to the emergency room. In 2008, 34 of those injuries were fatal.

In his speech at The George Washington University’s commencement a year ago, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told a story involving life-threatening complications from a work injury when he was 17. Working as a meat cutter, he accidentally sliced his finger but did not get medical treatment immediately. Subsequent blood and bone infections and gangrene landed him in the hospital for two months. “For the first 96 hours, I battled between life and death,” he said.

Emanuel’s experience highlights a challenge faced by employers of young workers: Teens often do not report injuries or problems, or they underestimate the seriousness of such situations. NIOSH’s estimates for teen workplace injuries are extrapolated, because only about one-third of injuries sustained on the job by teens are reported and treated.

For HR managers at companies employing teens, these statistics should be a clarion call to review training procedures for young workers and their supervisors.

Developmental Factors

Teens have special and substantial risks for work-related injuries and illnesses, according to NIOSH. They tend to switch jobs more frequently than adults, making them more likely to perform unfamiliar tasks, they often lack experience and receive only cursory training, and they frequently perform jobs without receiving any training at all.

In addition, teens may not have the physical and emotional maturity needed for some jobs, and supervision of them is frequently inadequate. Because they are still developing physically, they may be more susceptible to harm from chemical and other exposures and from repetitive motion injuries. Many teens also are not aware of labor laws or their legal rights; they may not know what tasks are prohibited by law.

And, as most parents of teens can attest, teens sometimes don’t like to ask for help or direction because they think they already know everything.

Teens’ workplace environments can contribute to the risks. “It’s not because they’re fearless or reckless or fooling around on the job,” says Chris Miara, co-director of the National Young Worker Safety Resource Center. “It’s partly because the places that hire teens— restaurants, grocery and convenience stores, gas stations, and retail settings—tend to have a lot of hazards.”

Miara’s organization—a collaborative project of the University of California at Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program and the Education Development Center Inc. in Massachusetts— provides training, technical assistance and resource materials to state and community groups nationwide.

Train from Day One

Each year as summer approaches, the Saint Louis Zoo begins recruiting seasonal employees, many in their teens, to supplement regular full- and part-time staff. Dusty Deschamp, director of human resources, says the zoo will hire as many as 200 teens as young as 15 to work in gift shops, food and guest services, and grounds crews. Workplace safety begins during the application process—potential employees are screened for drug use and criminal records.

Safety training is paramount, Deschamp says, and all workers receive basic safety training, including use of personal protective equipment, how to put out fires, first aid and CPR.

Deschamp says the zoo’s full-day orientation trains teens and adult workers together in groups of 15 to 20. “Our training managers have perfected the orientation,” he says. “They target all kinds of learning styles and all ages to keep them engaged.”

Teens also get on-the-job training in their specific tasks. “We monitor them very closely,” says Wyndell Hill, vice president of internal relations at the zoo. Managers and seasonal supervisors are responsible for ensuring that teens work only on tasks permitted by law. “No one under 18 drives a vehicle or operates power equipment,” Hill says.

Child Labor Law Job Restrictions

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets forth the following restrictions for younger workers:

Age 18 and older: No restrictions.

Ages 16 and 17: May work unlimited hours in any job except those declared hazardous by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Examples of jobs declared hazardous: excavation, manufacturing explosives, mining and operating many types of power-driven equipment. Hazardous equipment in food service includes power-driven meat processing machines, such as meat slicers, saws, patty-forming machines, grinders or choppers; commercial mixers; and power-driven bakery machines, including mixers. Sixteen-yearolds may not drive; limited driving for 17-year-olds is permitted.

Ages 14 and 15: During the school year, work is limited to three hours a day and 18 hours a week. On days off from school and in the summer, students may work eight hours a day and 40 hours a week. They may not work earlier than 7 a.m. or later than 7 p.m. during the school year; from June 1 through Labor Day, they may work until 9 p.m.

Jobs exempt from child labor law regulations: In general, children of any age are permitted to work for businesses entirely owned by their parents, but those younger than 16 may not work in mining or manufacturing and no one under 18 may work in a DOL-designated hazardous occupation. Minors who deliver newspapers to consumers are exempt from the child labor provisions in the FLSA as well as wage and hour provisions. Child actors and performers are also exempt.


On-the-Job Injuries

According to NIOSH, the most common injuries received by working teens are cuts, bruises, scrapes, sprains and strains, burns, and fractures or dislocations. Not surprisingly, most injuries occur in places that employ the most teens—retail shops, restaurants and grocery stores.

The leading causes for young worker fatalities are motor vehicle accidents, homicides, machine-related accidents, electrocution and falls. Workers younger than age 18 are often killed or seriously injured while performing tasks or jobs prohibited by child labor laws, such as operating heavy equipment, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Even safe and well-supervised workplaces can pose hazards for young workers. Common teen complaints include repetitive trauma from scanning groceries or typing, and neck, back and shoulder pain.

Raise Awareness

Working teens also can suffer emotional trauma at work. Stress, verbal and physical threats and abuse, and sexual harassment are common in workplaces that employ teens. Teens have all the same protections as adults have in the workplace, though younger workers tend to be less aware of their legal rights.

In 2004, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) created the Youth@Work initiative to educate teen workers about their rights to:

  • Work free of discrimination.
  • Work free of harassment.
  • Complain about job discrimination without punishment.
  • Receive accommodations for religion or disability.
  • Keep medical information private.

EEOC officials report that the percentage of claims by young workers is increasing, even though teens may be less inclined than adult employees to report coercive treatment to managers, employers or even their parents.

“Teens are more naive about what’s acceptable in the workplace, and they’re less confident about speaking out,” says Jennifer A. Drobac, an Indiana University law professor who studies sexual harassment. The EEOC’s “training is being given in schools, but how effective can it be if you’re with 300 other kids in a school gym? Too many employers simply hand teens an information packet and have them sign a form that they’ve received it.”

In many instances, supervisors of teens are young and inexperienced. The kind of banter they use in social settings may be unacceptable at work. A supervisor’s lack of understanding of contextually acceptable behavior can have serious consequences for employers.

The restaurant industry has been especially vulnerable to harassment claims, though lawsuits also have targeted supermarkets, retailers, car dealerships, distribution centers, health clubs and hotels.

In many cases, Drobac says, HR managers may not be fully aware of how pervasive harassment is among younger workers. She suggests that HR personnel—not just line supervisors—give teenagers a brief orientation about harassment prohibitions and the need to report misconduct. “Such one-on-one communication builds trust,” she says. It may give young employees confidence that their complaints will be heard.

Legal Matters

In addition to complying with general workplace rules set by OSHA, employers of teens must follow federal and state child labor laws. The Fair Labor Standards Act is the primary federal law governing workers younger than 18.

The act restricts when minors can work and what jobs they can do. For example, teens hired for nonagricultural employment must be at least 14, teens younger than 16 may work restricted hours, and no one younger than 18 may work in hazardous jobs or operate power equipment.

To keep teen workers safe, NIOSH offers employers the following suggestions:

Know and comply with the laws. Child labor laws vary by state, and many state regulations are even more restrictive than federal laws. Post government regulations in a location visible to all workers.

Recognize hazards. Employers can reduce the potential for injury or illness by assessing and eliminating workplace hazards and by ensuring that equipment used by young workers is safe and legal.

Supervise young workers. Supervisors and adult co-workers of teens must be aware of tasks young workers may or may not perform. Make sure supervisors understand that teen workers require more and closer supervision than adult workers, and clearly label equipment that young workers cannot use. OSHA provides stickers for equipment that workers younger than 18 are prohibited from operating.

Provide training. Train young workers to recognize and avoid workplace hazards, and teach them safe work practices. Have them demonstrate that they can perform tasks safely. Include training on how to prepare for fires, accidents and violent situations, and what to do if they get injured.

Develop an injury and illness prevention program. OSHA offers consultation services in every state to help employers identify hazards and improve safety and health management. Employer programs and materials should be age-appropriate, with processes for identifying and solving safety and health problems.

Encourage teens to speak up. Employers should foster an environment where teens can ask questions if they are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with tasks they are asked to perform. Make sure they know where to go for help, and encourage them to come forward with concerns. Be sure they understand that they are safe from retaliation if they report a safety hazard or inappropriate conduct.

Tap the Resources

Federal and state governments and schools are teaming up to offer age-appropriate work safety awareness and training programs. Many of these programs can also be used in the workplace.

NIOSH’s “Talking Safety” web site includes curricula tailored to all 50 states and Puerto Rico. OSHA’s “Teen Workers” web site provides information on teen worker rights and responsibilities, along with resources for employers. The State Compensation Insurance Fund has a comprehensive curriculum for training teen workers in California on workplace safety. And many state labor departments offer similar guidance.

City officials in Berkeley, Calif., asked Berkeley City College to develop a mandatory, 8.5-hour work skills curriculum for teens entering its YouthWorks program. The city places hundreds of teens in summer jobs with the city and local employers.

Berkeley’s teen workers also receive orientation and education about child labor laws and on-the-job training at their worksites. Teens work jobs in city departments; at nonprofits; in school summer programs; for community mural projects; and in Farm Fresh Choice, a program that brings fresh produce to low-income neighborhoods. The pact between the city and participating employers requires employers to provide “appropriate and adequate supervision at all times” and “a safe work environment and conditions for youth, including any personal protective equipment required to perform the functions of their assigned work.”

Dangerous Work

Each year, the National Consumers League, a private, nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., releases its list of the five most dangerous jobs for teenagers. The following jobs consistently make the list, though not always in the same order:

Agricultural worker: Operating or working around machinery, in confined spaces, at higher elevations, around livestock, and with poultry or seafood processing.

Construction laborer: Roofing, siding, working with sheet metal or concrete, working near an electrical current.

Driver or operator: Driving and operating a forklift or tractor.

Traveling youth crews: Conducting door-to-door solicitation and associated travel.

Outside helper: Landscaping, groundskeeping, lawn service and associated travel.


Delfina Geiken, the city’s employment programs administrator, says the training has received high marks from employers. The program requires that worksite supervisors attend an orientation to prepare them for the experience of working with teens.

“You should not assume that because someone is willing to host a teen at their workplace that they are adequately prepared,” Geiken says. “Supervisors should receive training on how to supervise and mentor teens.”

Geiken says clear job descriptions and expectations, consistent supervision, and communication are keys to keeping youths safe. “Programs should always be revised, refreshed and renewed based on what the teens see as beneficial,” she adds. “If employers also have ideas, then we address those.”

Saint Louis Zoo’s Hill offers one final piece of advice: “They are kids, and you have to expect the unexpected.”

______________________________________

The author is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.


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