Hazards, Work Pressures Add to Youth Injury Risk

Exposure to work hazards, a frenetic job pace and choice of employment increase the likelihood of injury among adolescent and young adult workers, according to a new systematic review appearing in the February issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

According to the nine studies analyzed between 1997 and 2005 – which were conducted in the United States, Canada and Australia – food service and construction industry jobs topped the list of hazardous employment among 12- to-24-year-old workers.

"These studies provide sufficient evidence that the type of work setting, in particular restaurant work and manual labor jobs, was independently associated with work injury," said lead author F. Curtis Breslin, Ph.D., a scientist at the Institute for Work and Health in Toronto.

The review results showed that the frequency and number of on-the-job hazards was significantly associated with teens' risk of injury. Common on-the-job hazards included using knives, climbing ladders or scaffolding and operating fryer machines, grills and ovens.

A consistently increased risk of injury also existed among youth who reported feeling overloaded or pressured to maintain a certain pace at work.

Male and Female Workers' Risk of Injury Similar

The review analysis found that for the most part, male and female workers have similar risks for injury, despite previous research indicating that young male workers sustain injuries at about twice the rate of female workers.

"We found that when males and females are working similar jobs, they have a similar risk for work injury," Breslin said. "Even though you have males having higher injury rates, it seems to be attributable to them being in more dangerous jobs like construction" and not to factors specifically associated with gender.

Minorities Have Increased Injury Risk

Minorities, though, appeared to be a significant predictor of increased injury risk, after taking work setting and work hours into account. In one study, the prevalence of work injury among Hispanic, black and other minorities was 67 percent higher than among young white workers. In another, the prevalence of on-the-job injury was 60 percent higher in Hispanic teens, compared to white teens.

"We didn't necessarily expect that [finding] going into it," Breslin said. "It seems to be more the job they're doing, not the characteristics of the kids themselves" that affects injury risk.

Carol Runyan, Ph.D., director of the Injury Prevention Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was skeptical of the minority findings, as she claims there are numerous factors other than exposure to hazards and work setting that increase a person's risk to injury.

"This finding raises more questions than it answers," she said. "I would want to know more about whether there are differences in the types of environments in which minority versus majority workers are employed, [such as] environmental safety factors, differences in training or supervision, safety of neighborhoods and risk of assault at work."

Runyan suggested that for some Hispanic workers, there could also be language barriers between workers and supervisors that could impinge on the success of training and supervision practices associated with maintaining safe work practices.

Involvement of Parents and Educators Is Important

Problems in figuring out how to protect young workers lie in the difference in social norms in the workplace versus schools and home environments, according to Breslin. Parents and educators may teach work safety education techniques that aren't necessarily being used on the job, he said.

In 2004, almost 180,000 U.S. teens were severely injured at work. Between 15 and 26 percent of injured teen workers report permanent health problems as the result of on-the-job injuries.

I"I think it is critically important that parents talk with their children about what they are doing at work, including issues of supervision and training and the kinds of tasks and equipment they are involved with," Runyan said.

Runyan also suggested that parents meet the supervisors of their children to let them know they are aware of the work environment and to try to determine if the supervisor is managing them in a responsible way.

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