The Department of Labor launched the "YouthRules!" initiative (www.youthrules.dol.gov) this past June, "To promote safe and rewarding work experiences for teens." Special care should be given to those just beginning their trek into the working world. But is there something we can do from an environmental health and safety/workplace viewpoint before they get to this juncture in their life?

Dr. Sandra Steingraber, a leading researcher on maternal and child health, says that, "Children very often serve as the kind of canaries in the coal mine." Children suffer injuries and illnesses before an adult does, partly because their bodies are frailer and they absorb and react to toxic agents faster than an adult.

Perhaps this is why the history of worker safety and health legislation began with laws to protect children. England passed the first law governing sanitary and safety conditions and hours worked by children in 1784 (following an outbreak of fever in cotton mills) and the law improved with passage of the Health and Morals Act of 1802. Massachusetts developed laws addressing employment and the safety of children in factories in 1877.

Youth at work

Before age 18 in the U.S. there are staggered age rules for where children can work and what they may do. For example, with the exception of state restrictions, a child of any age could deliver newspapers, babysit or act in movies. Children under 18 are generally prohibited from working in hazardous occupations (such as operating machinery). With few exceptions it is difficult to visualize pre-teens in the U.S. performing any steady or routine job.

Here are some suggestions from a workplace viewpoint to help protect the safety and health of children from conception to pre-teens before they become an employee.

Reproductive health

We've got to give a child a chance to be born healthy. This means the reproductive health of the child's parents should not be impaired because of workplace hazards. "I don't think enough is being done in this area," I told a reporter from USA Today who wrote the article, "Workers take employers to court over birth defects" (February 26, 2002). The reporter agreed. And that's why she felt more lawsuits were occurring among employees who had children with birth defects.

Employers need to be proactive. Just because there are few laws governing workplace reproductive health doesn't mean the hazard is absent or that nothing needs to be done. Even though the cause for most birth defects is unknown, actions can be taken to reduce workplace risks. There are guidelines for establishing and maintaining workplace reproductive health programs. See my ISHN article, December 2000: "Are you protecting fetal health?"

If the threat of a lawsuit is not enough to spur some employers to action, consider the direct and indirect costs. Besides an employee's emotional burden, an employee who has a child with health problems will need more time off from work to help with medical care, etc. And it is estimated that the lifetime direct expenses for a child with a birth defect can range from $170,00 to $700,000. Does the employer's insurance cover these expenses?

Health promotion programs

Reducing reproductive health risks at work can only go so far. A proper mix of diet, exercise, proper medical care, correct medications and health supplements (folic acid fortification, etc.), avoidance of substance abuse, limiting alcohol and tobacco use, etc. - those things a person mostly does away from work - is also needed to help create a healthy child.

Ninety-five percent of employers with more than 50 employees report they offer at least one health promotion activity, according to the federal government's "2010 Healthy People" project. Almost any activity that improves the health of an employee will help improve reproductive health, but special activities can be targeted for this topic. Similar to a workplace reproductive health program, health promotion programs save money for the employer, about $3 to $6 for every dollar spent, according to the article "Healthy Employees: A competitive advantage" (ISHN May 2002).

Safety equipment purchases

Children everywhere count. Encourage your company to adopt a code of conduct with all products it buys. Do not buy any product made by a company that may use child labor or from any country that allows the exploitation of children. Pay particular attention to who manufactures safety apparel such as gloves and where they're manufactured. If you're not sure, demand verification that child labor was not used to make a product.

Safety & health training

Every parent is a safety and health manager to their children. Give the parent some extra knowledge to do their job well. Just about every workplace conducts mandatory safety and health training covering workplace hazards. Why not use off-the-job examples to emphasize proper safety and health precautions?

Hazard communication training? Use an example of controlling toxic chemicals in the home.

Personal protective equipment? Explain why a helmet or other safety gear is important when children are involved in physical or risky activities. You have a captive audience, and off-the-job examples can support many workplace safety and health training topics.

Off-the-job safety programs

These programs can be stand-alone or part of a company's health promotion activities. Examples include sponsoring a group, such as a local safety council, to certify employees' vehicle safety-seats for their children, provide a bike safety "rodeo," vacation and home safety activities, and so on. The point here is that more than two-thirds of all deaths among children and adolescents aged 5-19 years result from unintentional injury-related causes. The number one cause (32 percent) results from motor vehicle injuries (occupant and pedestrian combined). A little help here may go a long way to protect children from harm.

Environmental issues

EPA has established an Office of Children's Health Protection, recognizing that children are particularly vulnerable to environmental contaminants. EPA, along with the National Center for Environmental Economics, published the report, "America's Children and the Environment: A First View of Available Measures" in December 2000.

The report identifies environmental threats to children that include broad categories such as outdoor and indoor air pollution, drinking water contamination, pesticide residues in foods, and land contamination. And it explains future directions to help protect children from environmental hazards.

Employers establish many reasons for reducing waste and pollution beyond legal requirements. Foremost of these reasons should be consideration of children living near their operations. Although a law may permit it, perhaps it shouldn't be done.

Here's an example: Many health researchers and government agencies such as the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry feel there is no safe limit for lead in a child's body. Employers may elect to achieve zero discharge for lead. They may also voluntarily elect to significantly reduce emissions of developmental, reproductive, or other toxins that particularly affect children. For a list of such chemicals visit www.scorecard.org.

The future

The ideas presented here are not inclusive. You can probably think of more that can be done from an EHS/workplace view to help protect children's safety and health.

Children represent the future of the world. Every generation should be better off than the one that preceded it. We owe a lot to our parents and other adults. And we should ensure that children today benefit from our actions and wisdom.