Keep young workers safe
Inexperience and communication issues may put them at risk
- Factors that increase young workers’ injury risks include inexperience with the working environment as well as inadequate training in the types of industries in which most young workers find employment.
- Safety pros and supervisors must ensure young workers feel comfortable speaking up if they feel unsafe performing a work task, experts recommend.
- Experts suggest that safety pros and supervisors invite young workers’ input so they feel empowered and develop critical-thinking skills.
Many U.S. teens enter the workforce to make money and get a head start on their careers. However, in addition to being inexperienced and unfamiliar with work processes, teens and young workers face a higher risk of being injured on the job.
The Georgia Tech Research Institute’s Center for Young Worker Safety and Health states that workers 15 to 24 years old – who represent 14 percent of the total U.S. labor force – are twice as likely as their older co-workers to end up in an emergency department for a workplace injury.
Additionally, 70 teens are killed on the job every year in the United States, and about 200,000 are injured, according to the National Young Worker Safety Resource Center. The center is a collaboration between the University of California, Berkeley, and the Education Development Center Inc., a nonprofit organization based in Waltham, MA.
What makes the workplace more dangerous for young workers, and what can safety professionals do to help?
Factors affecting young workers’ safety
Young workers are at different stages of physical and cognitive development than adult workers, according to OSHA. For younger teens in particular, these factors can affect the availability and fit of personal protective equipment and may put them at a disadvantage for safely completing tasks involving strength or motor control.
Teens’ level of maturity also may influence their safety in the workplace, said Gary K. Pechie, director of the Wage and Workplace Standards Division of the Connecticut Department of Labor. Although it is not the case for all teens, many feel “invincible” at this stage in life and may skip necessary precautions before completing a safety-sensitive task, Pechie said. Both teens and young adults may not have enough work and safety experience to recognize the seriousness of common hazards, such as tripping hazards or slippery floors, he added.
The types of employment that young workers are able to find can have an effect on safety. Many teens work in low-wage jobs – such as retail, hospitality and food service – that have less training because they are high-turnover positions, said Diane Bush, program coordinator for the Labor Occupational Health Program at the University of California, Berkeley. According to the Georgia Tech Research Institute’s Center for Young Worker Safety and Health, other common industries for young workers are construction, agriculture, mining and transportation – some of the industries with the highest injury rates for any age.
Another common type of business in which young workers are employed is a family business, Pechie said. Most non-agriculture family businesses must still follow all applicable child labor laws, however, and ensure young family members are properly trained, he warned.
“A young worker is not any safer if they are the son or daughter of the owner,” he said.
Many of the child labor laws that protect younger teens – such as work-hour limits and restrictions on what tasks they can perform – no longer apply once they reach age 18. In most of the country, that means an 18-year-old can use powered cutting equipment such as circular saws and meat slicers; work in an environment with possible exposures to radioactive and hazardous substances; operate forklifts or wrecking balls; and work as a logger or at a sawmill.
Employers must approach safety training differently for young workers, according to Jenny Leigh Houlroyd, project director for the Center for Young Worker Safety and Health at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. Young workers may not have much – or any – previous experience in a work environment, so what may seem like common sense to a seasoned employee may not be for a young one. For example, supervisors should tell young workers what they need to do in case a machine breaks down or if they spot a safety hazard in the workplace, she said.
Pechie also recommends that supervisors and safety professionals spend additional time during initial training for teens discussing cell phone use. They should explain when and where cell phones can and cannot be used, as well as the risks of using phones while performing safety-sensitive work.
Certain types of training may be more effective for teens, Houlroyd said, noting that hands-on learning exercises using props or actual equipment are especially helpful. For example, the Center for Young Worker Safety and Health at the Georgia Tech Research Institute provides a hearing loss demonstration in which students can interact with a mannequin to see how various levels of sound affect its hearing.
Video presentations can be effective means of teaching young workers about safety, Pechie said. Videos that may have an impact include ones showing young workers who have lost limbs or other body parts due to an incident in the workplace. “You see that video and that wakes you up,” Pechie said.
Houlroyd warned that young workers may not view videos seriously if the videos are a decade or more older.
“They will notice the eyeglasses look old, the hairstyles are different. It is amazing how that affects how they pay attention,” she said.
Young workers may be hesitant to speak up or seek assistance when they feel unsafe or encounter a hazard, which could lead to a future injury, Pechie said. They may feel as though they have done something wrong and do not want to look incompetent in front of an adult authority figure, he said.
“They are trying to be in the adult world and on their own for the first time,” he said. “It may feel to them like they do not look good if they ask questions.”
In some instances, they may be afraid they will lose their paycheck if they point out a safety hazard, he added, which can be especially hindering to teens or young adults who work to help support their families.
To help young workers feel comfortable discussing safety at work, one possibility is a “buddy system,” Bush said. She pointed to Oakland Zoo in California where each new worker is paired up with an adult or peer who is more experienced. The new workers interact with these “buddies” regularly and typically feel more comfortable asking them questions, Bush said.
Even when workers do speak up when something is wrong, generational differences in communication styles can alter how young workers’ messages are received by older supervisors, Houlroyd said. She recalls an instance in which two young workers at a restaurant were injured by a work process and needed to inform one of their supervisors, who was offsite. They texted the supervisor – believing that it was the method of communication that carried the strongest sense of urgency – but the supervisor felt that the injury was not a serious concern because it was being communicated via text, and did not respond until later that day.
Engaging young workers
Bush said safety professionals must ensure supervisors are setting good examples, following the laws and using proper safety equipment. And Houlroyd encourages safety professionals to consider younger workers’ input to improve the safety culture of the workplace. “Bring the young workers to the table,” Houlroyd said. “They are young, energetic and engaged. They want to be part of the program. If they’re asked to participate, they likely will.”
The benefits of empowering young workers to be proactive about safety at work are twofold, Bush said. The workers likely will be safer and they will develop better critical-thinking and problem-solving skills regarding safety.
“Those critical-thinking skills are important for health and safety,” she said. “They will help protect themselves, and will help make things safer for everyone.”