Houston Program Brings Workplace Safety to the Complicated World of Teens

When it comes to public speaking, OSHA compliance assistance specialist Marc Briggs says he'd rather face 500 adults than 10 high school kids.

"It's very intimidating," Briggs said of facing a roomful of teenagers. " … We're on totally different levels."

During a Sept. 23 NSC Congress and Expo session titled "Reaching Teens at Work," Briggs talked about the challenges of teaching occupational safety to young people as well as the successes of a youth safety initiative in the Houston area.

Briggs, who volunteers in an occupational safety training program for students and teachers in the Houston Independent School District (HISD), admitted he's learned a few lessons about what life is like as a teenager since the program was launched in 2003.

"High school is different than I remember," Briggs said. "It's a totally different world. When you have kids bringing their pillows to class, and playing Nintendo [in class], that should say it all."

You Had Me at "Hello"

That doesn't necessarily mean that today's high school students aren't intelligent or interested in learning. Briggs just has come to realize that their learning styles are … well, different from those of other generations.

For instance, when Briggs was leading an occupational safety education session with a group of particularly unresponsive high school students, Briggs said he was convinced that students were bored to tears as evidenced by the fact that one student in the front row was playing Nintendo. Afterward, Briggs apologized to their teacher.

The teacher's reply shocked him.

"The teacher said, 'You had 'em the whole time,'" Briggs explained. "He told me that 'what you have to realize is this generation can multi-task in ways you don't understand.'"

Program Brings Workplace Safety Education to Students

In April 2003, OSHA announced it was forming an alliance with the American Society of Safety Engineers, the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) and HISD to bring workplace safety education to students in 23 Houston high schools. The partnering organizations developed training and educational programs for students and teachers based on OSHA's general industry standards.

Through the alliance, volunteers from ASSE and OSHA such as Briggs teach workplace safety and health and hazard recognition to high school students enrolled in the HISD Career and Technology Education programs.

The program also trains high school teachers to teach their students in the ways of occupational safety and health. Through a Susan B. Harwood grant, TEEX in summer 2003 provided free OSHA 40-hour train-the-trainer courses for teachers in HISD and throughout the state, empowering them to teach the 10- and 30-hour OSHA outreach courses. Through a state grant, OSHA training was provided to more HISD teachers in summer 2004, Briggs said.

While the goal of the program is to reduce injuries, illnesses and fatalities among teen workers, an important aspect of the initiative is its emphasis on providing safety training to high school teachers, Briggs explained.

"A lot of teachers when they come to the classroom have been taught to teach math, to teach social studies, to teach science, but they haven't been taught to teach safety," Briggs said. He added that even educators who teach classes such as shop and automotive also lack a safety background.

Safety Education Doesn't Have to be Boring

Safety training for high school teachers hasn't just been about the nuts and bolts of OSHA's general industry standards. This past June, ASSE's Gulf Coast Chapter and OSHA provided "practical training" to HISD teachers as part of a 2-week continuing education session at the end of the school year.

The emphasis of the training was to give teachers some tools to make safety education entertaining for students.

On such exercise involved passing around a bowl of candy to teachers. The bowl contained about 300 items: 289 pieces of hard candy, 10 Tootsie rolls and one Snickers bar. When the instructor asked who got the Snickers bar, one of the teachers exclaimed, "'Me! Me!'" Briggs recalled.

The bad news was that the proud owner of the Snickers bar was dead metaphorically speaking, at least.

Instructors explained to the teachers that the 289 or so pieces of hard candy represented near-miss accidents in the plant, and the 10 Tootsie rolls represented the 10 near-misses that led to the fatality (which was represented by the Snickers bar.)

The point of the exercise: "There are ways you can communicate this to students without making it dull and boring, lecture-style," Briggs said.

What Students Need to Know

When it comes to communicating occupational safety and health concepts to high school students, Briggs advises keeping things simple letting students know, for example, "you can get killed at work" or "you don't have to go to the top of a 40-foot ladder to change that light bulb."

He also said it's important to let them know where to go for help.

For example, OSHA has created a Web page with occupational safety and health information for teen workers, employers, educators and parents. The agency also provides posters and brochures to help employers understand their responsibilities and educate teen workers on occupational safety and health concepts. (One such poster says, "Teen Workers! You have a right to a safe and health workplace," and offers some general advice as well as contact information for OSHA.)

As part of the Department of Labor's YouthRules! Initiative, the agency provides educational brochures (such as the "Employer's Pocket Guide on Youth Employment"), outreach events, training seminars and a Web page with information on workplace rules, rights and responsibilities.

Starting a Dialogue

Bridging the generation gap in order to start a dialogue on occupational safety and health with teenagers can be a challenging task, but the Houston-area alliance of ASSE, OSHA, TEEX and HISD has experienced some successes, Briggs noted.

In 2004, ASSE sponsored the "YouthRules! Rally and Job Fair" at a Houston-area mall, featuring interactive learning activities, the Houston Rockets dancers and other entertainment.

This year, "we went for broke," Briggs explained. The second youth rally and job fair was held at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. It featured a resume-writing session, interviewing advice, a 30-minute OSHA training session and education on Equal Opportunity and Wage-and-Hour laws.

Briggs estimated that 5,000 people showed up, and that another 8,000 were turned away by police. "They were getting very angry," Briggs said of those who couldn't get in.

Briggs concluded his session at NSC by talking about the lessons he's learned so far: No. 1, that educators don't think like people do in the business world; No. 2, that high school is different today than we remember; No. 3, that grants run out; and No. 4, that, when it comes to teaching teens about workplace safety, "we have a lot of work to do."

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