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
- 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
- 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
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
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