Approximately 1.9 million youths work in the United States. These young workers have a higher rate of injuries and fatalities than their adult coworkers. In fact, every year, 160,000 workers under 18 are injured in the workplace. In 2009, 32 youths under the age of 18 were fatally injured on the job.
Enest J. Weiss III, senior analyst for the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, and Sheila Arbury, OSHA health scientist, discussed two youth fatality cases to illustrate the particular vulnerabilities of young employees. In the first case, a 16-year-old male produce worker in a supermarket was fatally injured when he was instructed to operate a cardboard box baler. In the second case, a 16-year-old male warehouse summer hire was fatally injured his first week on the job when he operated a forklift despite not having the training or authorization to do so.
In both of these cases, Arbury and Weiss pointed out that the young workers had limited experience and had been on the job for a short time. In addition, the employers did not have formal safety and health programs, designated safety staff members, formal training programs, adequate supervision or an owner/user manual for the equipment.
“One of OSHA’s main messages is the employer is responsible for assessing the workplace for hazards,” said Arbury. “He has to provide training to the young workers in what they can and cannot do, and has to supervise them and teach them about best practices.”
Vulnerabilities and Strategies
Weiss outlined vulnerabilities common to younger employees:
- They have limited experience levels.
- They have limited knowledge of the laws and workplace hazards.
- They are eager to please and will take on tasks and use equipment whether it’s safe or not.
- They watch how adults do the job and will model it whether they’re doing it right – or safely – or not.
- They are reluctant to ask questions or say no.
- They have a desire to be seen as competent – they want to learn how to do the job to be successful.
- They are more likely to be temporary or seasonal workers and therefore not be well trained.
- They view their adult coworkers as being protective and assume they are looking out for the their best interests.
Weiss and Arbury also explained how employers can protect young workers:
- Know and comply with federal and state child labor laws, which are designed to protect the safety, health and well-being of minors.
- Ensure that all safety devices are functioning correctly and enforce proper operation.
- Make certain that employees and management know and understand the importance of the machine’s safety feature.
- Develop, implement and enforce a written comprehensive health and safety program
- Government agencies should increase efforts to inform businesses about child labor laws.
- Identify workplace hazards.
- Require consistent demonstration of tasks.
- Reinforce specific training and use appropriate trainers.
- Encourage questioning.
- Assign age and maturity-appropriate tasks.
- Offer consistent supervision and feedback.
- Don’t assume young employees are adults or already know how to do the task.
- Don’t assume young employees know the law.
- Verify the young worker’s age – in both of the cases above, the workers and families presented false age documentation.
“In every case, the employer was not fulfilling his responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workplace for workers. And the workers were so young – that’s the really sad part – they didn’t know to question,” Arbury said. “They were really victimized in these circumstances.”