Teens At Work: Challenges in Protecting a Young Work Force

May 12, 2006
As the school year wraps up, the prospect of sunny weather, outdoor barbecues and lazy afternoons at the beach make many a teenager dizzy with glee, while others find summer jobs to earn some pocket money and work experience.

Searching for summer employment can be enough of a challenge for teens, as fierce competition from older, more experienced workers makes the job search frustrating. But one of the problems teenagers and their employers are encountering is one many teens take for granted or don't even think about: their own safety.

Merah Reiter, now 23, realized how important safety was early on. Having worked in coffee shops since she was a teenager, Reiter has seen firsthand the hazards young workers face in establishments that seem benign to the consumer eye. Currently working for a California-based chain of coffee shops, Reiter has observed that one of the causes for hazards in her workplace is understaffing.

"The people are working themselves into getting sick," she says. "The managers haven't hired anyone new and the workers there are moving so fast that they aren't careful and get hurt. Many have even developed carpal tunnel syndrome working with the manual coffee machines."

She recalls one incident in which a co-worker was burned with scalding water when another, who hadn't been properly trained, was trying to turn on a big coffee urn. "Workers should be educated in how they properly should use things in the shop," she says.

Reiter isn't alone in that sentiment. Because of existing federal child labor laws and the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers are required to make sure that their employees under the age of 18 are safe while under their supervision. Many organizations and agency programs feel that educating young workers about their workplace safety rights would reduce their chances of incurring injuries and illnesses while on the job. As a result, equal pressure has been placed on the both teen workers and their employers to share responsibility for workplace safety.

All Industries Have Hazards

Employers, though, not only have the primary responsibility for abiding by OSHA and state safety regulations, but also for understanding them as well, says Cindy Lewis, principal of creative safety solutions of the American Society of Safety Engineers' (ASSE) Gulf Coast Chapter. Since she spearheads an alliance program that educates students in the Houston school district about workplace safety and health and helps them find jobs, she sees the areas where many employers are lagging behind.

"All industries are unsafe for young workers," Lewis says. Many employers are not knowledgeable about effective safety training measures for young workers. "Those that [are knowledgeable] fail to [train] because they don't want to invest the time or energy to train employees who will be with them for only a couple of months," she adds.

Lewis emphasizes that employers in construction and agriculture two of the most dangerous industries for teen workers, according to the National Consumer League may be up to speed with what the laws are, but do not understand the importance for the laws. Some employers allow teen workers to perform hazardous jobs in violation of workplace laws, even allowing them to be near heavy machinery and power-operated tools.

Despite existing prohibitions that address specific types of hazardous agricultural and construction labor, the work involved in the two industries is the leading cause of death to young workers. In the agricultural industry, child labor laws do not cover children of any age who work on the farms of their parents or guardians. Workers 16 years and older may be employed in hazardous fieldwork and children as young as 10 years old may work under special circumstances as hired farm workers. In construction, although activities such as roofing, excavation and demolition are prohibited for workers under age 18, minors 16 years and older can work at heights, which makes them vulnerable to falls, one of the most common type of fatalities among young workers.

Landscaping is another industry that the National Consumer League has deemed dangerous. But Susan Clay, a certified landscape professional and office manager of Fox Run Nurseries, a landscaping company in Virginia, says both she and owner Lou Kobus are making sure their company is an exception. Having employed as many as 60 teenaged employees during the summer months, Clay says her company takes pains to ensure that "When we hire a young person, we test their skill level and try to assign the appropriate tasks based on that," she explains. "Otherwise, we start them off with hand tools, then they graduate up to power equipment and afterwards they are checked on their ability to efficiently maneuver the equipment before they are sanctioned to operate it on the job."

The workers receive their personal protective equipment immediately after getting their employment information and are informed about why they need to wear it, Clay says. She credits her crew's good monitoring skills as the reason the company has not had to file a single workers' compensation claim in the past 10 years. The only two scares of which Clay is aware have been minor vehicle-related incidents, and she emphasizes that her drivers weren't at fault. But even those near-misses have taught Clay that she has to be just as vigilant about the teens' safety outside of the workplace as within. "These incidents have made us aware that perhaps it's important to leave some space between cars, since you don't know what someone else is going to do," Clay points out.

Staggering Numbers

Although fatalities and injuries among young workers are most common in agriculture, construction and even landscaping, injury and fatality statistics across all industries still are staggering. An average of 64 workers under the age of 18 died from work-related injuries each year from 1992 through 2002, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. In 1999, an estimated 84,000 work-related injuries among youth less than 18 years of age were treated in hospital emergency departments. This number is high when you consider that teens suffer nearly 75 percent more injuries than their adult counterparts.

The best way to avoid such statistics is to get young people involved in staying safe, says Elise Handelman, director of OSHA's Office of Occupational Health Nursing. "When young workers are motivated enough to understand the importance of safety, then it can really make a difference," she says.

One of the many challenges in protecting young workers is that they are very eager to please their superiors, according to Handelman. Although enthusiasm for the job is usually a well-regarded trait, this, in addition to an age-related sense of invinsibility, causes teens to not ask questions pertinent to their safety. "If they don't ask questions, teens wind up in predicaments they aren't prepared for," she says. "If it's not a situation of immediate risk, teens don't believe they will be killed."

Being vocal and asking questions hasn't been much help to Reiter, who after becoming well-read in OSHA and child labor laws, went up to her supervisors to address safety concerns that exist within the workplace. They, she says, have yet to address the issue. She also has contacted OSHA, but because there is no law against understaffing, there is not much they can do, she says. One of the bigger challenges, though, is getting her co-workers to come together as a collective group and fight for their rights. "They each want to protect themselves individually and they are scared that if they confront their managers, they might get fired," she says. "Although they realize the situation is no good for them, they would rather put up with it."

Rights Versus Rules

Teenage workers not speaking up, either as a unit or as individuals, may be due to them not buying into the laws that protect them, according to Diane Bush, project coordinator for the Labor Occupational Health Program at the University of California, Berkeley. Many of them know that the laws exist, but in their eyes, they are just another set of rules imposed by adults. "It's important to teach these laws as rights and frame them in a way the young workers can easily embrace," she says.

Bush, as project coordinator, offers young workers a 3- to 5-hour curriculum, in which she trains them on hazard identification and how to properly control and address hazards when they occur. She says that through activities such as role-play, the workers become more engaged as they identify certain hazards existing in their workplace and incorporate those hazards into their role-play activities.

Teens Will be Teens

The other challenge is that many teenagers, well, behave like teenagers. At least this is what Linda Sinks, owner of the Hungry Hat, a fast food restaurant in the Southern Sierra Mountains in California, has experienced. She has adopted an ultra "hand-on approach" when it comes to safety because some of the workplace accidents that have occurred in her restaurant have been triggered by teens goofing off. "Parents, nowadays, are making their kids go to work because they want to make them responsible," she says. "But since the kids are not particularly keen on the idea, they don't take it as seriously."

One incident that resonates in her mind was when a male teen worker stuck his hand in the fryer. Because he was so startled by the heat, he grabbed the fry basket and flipped hot oil on his face. The incident seriously injured the teen.

Determined to not let it happen again, Sinks now assigns one supervisor for every two teens working in her facility. When a new hire comes to the restaurant, both Sinks and her husband, who co-owns the restaurant, teach them how to use kitchen tools and electrical appliances the first week they are hired. Once Sinks "let them loose" in the kitchen, she stands watch to ensure they are using the tools properly.

While some of the young workers have become annoyed at her micro-managerial approach, Sinks says it has paid off. "I haven't had a worker's comp claim since 1999," she says. "Also, the kids down the line realize how valuable knowledge about safety has been and many of the teens who work for me come back every summer."

Upping the Minimum Age

As pressure increases to keep younger workers safe while on the job, many employers have increased the minimum age limit of their work force rather than institute safety training and special supervision for younger workers. This tactic has been hurting teens financially, says Renee Ward, founder of the Web site, www.Teens4hire.org, which is dedicated to helping teenagers find jobs. "Employers have increasingly become sensitive to young worker safety issues," she says. "As a result, they have been scaling up the minimum age requirement and teens are finding themselves having to look harder for jobs."

While Ward applauds employers' efforts in taking teen worker safety into consideration, she offers alternative ways to keep youth safety in mind while allowing younger workers to keep their jobs.

"If an employer hires someone who is pretty young (14 to 16 years old), they should be assigned duties that are not hazardous to their well-being," she says. "Also, if certain facilities are managed by a large corporation, corporate management should communicate the importance of training teenage employees about existing safety rules to managers and first-line supervisors."

This is exactly what Reiter wants to see accomplished in the coffee shop in which she works. As she confronts a hazardous workplace and has co-workers who are not willing or are too frightened to put up much of a fight, Reiter continues to educate herself on ways she can improve her working environment. Currently, she has created a petition she hopes her co-workers will sign so she can send it to her employer's corporate offices. She has even joined a youth worker advocacy group, Youth Workers United an organization that addresses the particular needs of youth working in food service and retail industries in the San Francisco area.

Reiter says she hopes her efforts will one day pay off.

"The only thing the managers at Peet's Coffee need to do is hire more people so the accidents that have occurred don't occur again," she said. "When that happens, I'm sure we will all sigh in relief."

Resources: For more information about employing teen workers, visit the DOL Web page devoted to regulations and information about youth employment at www.dol.gov/dol/topic/youthlabor/safetyhealth.htm or the YouthRules! Web site at www.youthrules.dol.gov, which has information for young workers, parents, employers and educators.

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