Most Teen Construction Workers Toil in Risky Tasks, Study Says

A new study conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has found that most teenage construction workers in the state are performing duties that are considered risky or are prohibited by federal and state labor laws.

The study, which was based on a telephone survey of 187 construction workers in North Carolina, revealed that 84 percent of them said they were performing tasks such as operating power saws, working as an electrician's helper or working in trenches deeper than 4 feet or at heights greater than 6 feet jobs that people under the age of 18 are not supposed to do by law.

Nearly half of the young workers said they performed three or more prohibited tasks during the course of their employment.

"These activities put teenaged workers at great risk because they don't yet have the training experience or judgment to handle a task like using a skill saw or operating a fork lift," said Dr. Carol Runyan, lead author of the study and director of the university's Injury Prevention Center.

Runyan added that despite the gains made in occupational health and safety, teenagers are still at the greatest risk.

"Our findings suggest that we need to take a hard look at out child labor laws and how we ensure compliance by employers," Runyan said.

Approximately half of the participants in the study worked in businesses that were owned by members of their own families or in which family members also worked. Most worked 8 hours a day, but the range was 3 to 12 hours.

Approved Tasks for Teens

There are a number of construction tasks that teenagers under 18 are allowed by law to do.

Nearly 96 percent of survey participants said one of their tasks was to clean up the work area. Other common and approved tasks include:

  • Getting tools, equipment and supplies for the worksite;
  • Using a shovel;
  • Removing nails, screws and rivets;
  • Using a handsaw;
  • Planting trees, grass and shrubs; and
  • Spraying paint.

Other construction jobs, such as using most power tools, putting on shingles or other roofing materials and using explosives, are expressly prohibited by law unless the worker is enrolled in a bona fide apprenticeship or student learner program.

"We only surveyed teens who had legally obtained the necessary work permits, so they were probably working for relatively responsible employers," Runyan said. "And still, a startling number of them reported that they were performing tasks that state and federal laws prohibit for minors. Our fear is that teens working without permits are exposed to even greater hazards and violations."

Runyan said employers, parents and teens should not only understand the laws but also the dangers associated with legal activities as well.

For more on the existing challenges in protecting teens in the workplace, read "Teens at Work: Challenges in Protecting a Young Work Force."

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