High-Risk Jobs for Teens

North American teens are getting into the workforce at a younger age. That's resulting in an enhanced need for youth workplace safety.

Darlene Adkins is president of public policy for the National Consumers League. She notes that the U.S. ranks first among affluent countries in the rate of injury and death to working minors.

The National Consumers League has identified jobs that are the most inappropriate and dangerous for youth. Driving is one of the leading causes of death among young workers. That includes operation of forklifts and other motorized equipment.

Teens tend to work in places susceptible to robbery, making working alone in cash-based businesses another high-risk job. Often the teen is alone, working late at night when these instances occur.

Other jobs among the worst are:

  • construction work -- considered a dangerous occupation for all workers
  • traveling youth crews -- door-to-door and street sales of merchandise and subscriptions
  • jobs in which employers pay "under the table" wages, where job protection and workers' compensation are not available

Cathi Carr is a senior prevention program specialist with a workplace safety board. She says it's hard to pick which jobs are the worst.

"Authorities...can tell you in what industries young workers have been killed and injured and what kinds of tasks they were doing at the time, but you can't necessarily extrapolate to saying they are the worst industries or the worst jobs because there are too many variables."

She says they would need to know, for example:

  • whether the particular workplace was safe
  • whether all the health and safety laws and regulations were being complied with
  • if machinery was properly guarded and whether it had a lockout device
  • whether workers had been trained to operate machinery
  • whether any hazardous products were labeled and if staff knew how to deal with them

While not every teen ends up in a dangerous job, there are certainly more young people working today than there ever have been.

According to the Child Labor Coalition, there are an estimated 5.5 million youths between 12 and 17 employed in the U.S.

And there's a trend toward expanding safety education for these millions of young workers.

Maureen Shaw is president of the Industrial Accident Prevention Association. She says the information is out there. It's just not being used.

"I think it is not a matter of the volume of information available. Rather, the awareness of the magnitude of the issue is still low. And the knowledge available is not being used," she says.

"There is also a lack of coordination across the country, and dollars for raising the awareness...are not being made available."

Carr agrees. "From my perspective, the challenge is to get the information to those who should receive it. We need to reach youth themselves, their parents, their teachers and the education system as a whole, employers -- particularly youth employers -- and the community at large," she adds.

Adkins says groups such as theirs are working to educate the public about dangerous jobs and what is appropriate and safe work for teens.

"There isn't enough education," she says. "It is easy for parents and teens to think any job is a safe job, that nothing bad could happen...in a teen job. This is not true."

Every year, 200,000 youth -- under age 18 -- are injured, and more than 70 are killed in the workplace, according to the National Consumers League.

And Adkins says many employers are seeking younger and younger workers than what they've hired in the past. "In other words, where once they went for older teens, they are now looking at 14- and 15-year-olds. This is especially true in retail, fast food, restaurants and grocery stores," says Adkins.

Most employers are simply unaware of special protection for younger workers. They don't mean to violate child labor laws or put kids at risk.

"Many front-line supervisors don't know the child labor laws. Some front-line supervisors are minors, too. Some kids may find themselves working on a shift where there is not adult supervision," Adkins says.

"Regardless of intent, we have to find a way to effect a change in behavior of employers who either don't or don't want to understand their legal responsibilities. Most, if not all, injuries and fatalities are preventable if health and safety is an integral part of the business and business planning," says Carr.

She says extra care must be taken when employing young workers. "Employers must keep in mind that they are not mini-adults, but in many ways still children who have not yet completed the process of growth and development in all spheres: physiologically, cognitively and emotionally."

She says they lack both the life experience and work experience. They require comprehensive training and appropriate supervision.

An Industrial Accident Prevention Association survey of workers ages 14 to 17 revealed that 56 percent did not receive work-related training before taking on new tasks at work. And 40 percent were not aware of their rights and responsibilities in the workplace.

In addition, 19 percent said they'd been exposed to hazardous materials, 14 percent said they had been injured at work and 24 percent reported "near misses" where they had almost been injured at work.

There are a number of advocacy programs in place in both Canada and the U.S. to inform young workers about their rights and responsibilities within the workforce.

Young workers need to ask questions about their workplace and its safety.

"They need to know that it is all right to refuse unsafe work. They don't need to please the boss if they feel the work is unsafe," says Adkins.

She says young people should be aware of the laws that protect them and speak up if there's something they're uncomfortable with. "If the employer insists, enlist the help of your parents."

Adkins says parents are often in the dark about what their children are being asked to do at work. "We've heard testimony after testimony from parents who say, 'My child was hired to do this activity [clean tables]. I didn't know they had him on the meat grinder.' They find out after a terrible injury occurs," she says.

Shaw agrees that parents are unaware. "Parents expect that someone [the employer] is looking after the health and safety of our children," says Shaw.

She says parent advocates are beginning to raise the issue that this is a national tragedy that we can prevent.

"I am very excited about the trend we see -- one of growing interest in imbedding prevention knowledge and processes into school curriculum," says Shaw.

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