Entering the workplace for the first time is an exciting time for most employees, especially for teens. The prospect of earning an hourly wage can sometimes overshadow the nature of the work, the teen’s ability to perform assigned tasks and the hazards associated with the new occupation. Also, parents don’t always recognize the dangers that their children may encounter and often offer congratulations simply because they obtained employment.

So it’s the responsibility of employers to protect young workers in the workplace. Adolescent workers are protected by two laws enforced by the Department of Labor (DOL): The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH). Each state also has child labor laws.

Perilous passage

According to NIOSH, every year about 70 teens die from workplace injuries in the United States, and approximately 77,000 young workers are seen in emergency rooms as a result of injuries suffered at work. The total injuries are estimated by NIOSH to be 230,000 annually for young workers.

The Department of Labor has established a list of 17 hazardous occupations that may not be performed by persons under 18. (There is a separate list for agricultural occupations.) These occupations also apply to parents employing their own children. There are limited exceptions for apprentice/student learners to these occupations (*):

  • 1 Manufacturing and storing of explosives
  • 2 Driving a motor vehicle and being an outside helper on a motor vehicle
  • 3 Coal mining
  • 4 Logging and sawmilling
  • 5 Power-driven woodworking machines*
  • 6 Exposure to radioactive substances
  • 7 Power-driven hoisting apparatus
  • 8 Power-driven metal-forming, punching and shearing machines*
  • 9 Mining, other than coal mining
  • 10 Meat packing or processing (including the use of power driven meat slicing machines)*
  • 11 Power-driven bakery machines
  • 12 Power-driven paper-product machines*
  • 13 Manufacturing brick, tile and related products
  • 14 Power-driven circular saws, band saws and guillotine shears*
  • 15 Wrecking, demolition and ship breaking operations
  • 16 Roofing operations*
  • 17 Excavation operations*

Common jobs & characteristics

The hazardous occupations listed by DOL are found within many positions held by teenagers. Over three million young adults under the age of 20 in the United States work in fast food restaurants, including those that deliver food. There have been numerous accidents as delivery personnel compete with the clock to deliver food while driving their personal vehicles in a very fast and reckless manner. Drivers age 16 to 20 have the highest rate of fatalities and injury rates of all drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 2001 data. These fatalities are attributed to youthful inexperience and carelessness.

Many other teens are employed in grocery stores, country clubs, amusement parks and retail establishments such as gas stations. Seasonal interns or college co-op students often work in manufacturing facilities. Teenagers are eager to demonstrate their ability and competency to perform tasks and are hesitant to ask for assistance or instruction when uncertain about how to proceed. Plus, young workers also have a mindset that they are invincible and nothing can happen to them.

Preventing injury

Here are actions you can take to prevent injury to working youth and to build the foundation of a safe and productive workforce in the 21st century:

  • Train young workers immediately upon hire regarding potential hazards of the workplace and chemical hazard recognition. Teach them what they are allowed and not allowed to do at work.

  • High-impact training may be effective with young workers — scenario-based incident histories, personal testimonies of real-life incidents and a description of actual incidents that have involved young workers.

  • Include safe work practice demonstration, evacuation, fire safety, emergency response and workplace violence prevention.

  • Supervise young workers and educate supervisors on the tasks that they are allowed or not allowed to perform.

  • Label equipment that young workers cannot use or color-code uniforms of young workers so that others will know their limitations.

  • Know and comply with child labor laws and safety and health regulations that apply to the specific business that employs the young worker.

  • Emphasize safety and verify safe work practices among young workers. Explain that the workers have a right to say no to unsafe work and a responsibility to report unsafe working conditions to their employer.

  • Implement a mentoring program or a buddy system for young workers with an experienced worker to guide them and answer work-related questions.

    Don’t be a statistic

    NIOSH maintains a database of youth fatalities by year that contains links to investigation reports of incidents where young workers age 18 and under suffered fatal injuries on the job. On the NIOSH FACE Web page, for the year 2000, there are detailed investigations for 14 fatalities of youths under the age of 18. Causes include trench collapse, hoist failure, scaffolding failure, forklift turnover, falls, baler crush injuries, farm accidents and automobile and truck accidents.

    Note to parents, educators & teens

    While this article focuses on employer responsibility for youth safety in the workplace, there is a shared responsibility among parents, educators and teens for their safety.

    Parents need to know the name and address of their teen’s employer and the nature of the work assigned. Parents must watch their teen for signs of fatigue, stress or injury and encourage them to report unsafe conditions to their management at work.

    Educators need to ensure that their work study programs comply with federal and state youth safety regulations and provide safety and health training to prospective workers before they enter the workplace.

    Teens need to follow the rules at work, stay focused on the job at hand and exercise caution. Their first responsibility is to maintain their own personal safety. It is their right to refuse work that is unsafe or exposes them to imminent danger.

    SIDEBAR: Resources

    “Youth Rules” is a Department of Labor Web page for youth. Employers may perform a compliance check with child labor laws by utilizing self-assessment tools. DOL provides fact sheets on child labor, some of which are listed below:

    • Fact Sheet #2 - Restaurants and Fast Food Establishments under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
    • Fact Sheet #34 - Important Changes in the Child Labor Laws Affecting the Driving of Automobiles and Trucks
    • Fact Sheet #37 - Application of Federal Child Labor Provisions to Amusement Parks and Recreation Establishments
    • Fact Sheet #38 - Employing Youth in Grocery Stores under FLSA