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Young workers – a unique challenge

January 1, 2011

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A large number of teens and young workers take their first jobs in the retail industry. Young workers present unique hazards to employers. A report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April 2010 found that although the death rate for workers 15-24 is lower than that of older workers, the injury rate is approximately twice as high.

“Young workers are really vulnerable in these stores,” said Jackie Nowell, director of the occupational safety and health office of the Washington-based United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. She attributed that vulnerability, in part, to the nature of youth. “Kids think nothing of their mortality,” she said. Yet the stresses of a high-demand retail environment are a factor.

In an environment where things need to be done quickly, supervisors may be making unsafe – and illegal – demands on young workers. “There are things [teens] cannot do and hours they are not supposed to work,” she said.

Again, supervisors may be working off of a misperception of safety in the industry. One of the more dangerous pieces of equipment in use at many retail locations is the paper baler. “I just think until somebody gets caught in one, the assumption is … because they have safeguards that they are not a problem. But they are. They kill people. They kill kids,” she said. “We can’t take it for granted that [young workers] know what they’re doing out there. They don’t.”

Stephen Mooser, health and safety director of the New York-based Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, believes younger workers can be more effectively reached through different methods of training than what is typically used. “I think without a doubt that they are much more plugged into the social network,” he said. “I think we ought to explore that a lot more and realize that the generations that are coming up are much more accustomed to going to the Internet … to get their information, and less inclined to sit down and read a safety manual.”

However, Nowell cautioned that training is not the only thing young workers need. “Supervision is really critical,” she said, noting supervision is not a one-man job. Because there may be only one manager on the floor per shift, “it’s really up to everyone who’s working with the kids.”

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