As I scanned through my e-mails this morning, I came across a headline from the SafetySmart! Weekly Briefing (June 16, 2008, www.safetysmart.com) that made me stop and immediately open the web link. The news brief cited an incident involving a 14-year-old boy, employed as a construction laborer, who was killed when a 5-ton beam fell on him.
As the parent of a 14-year-old seeking to embark on her first summer job, this incident came uncomfortably close to home. While deaths among teenage workers are admittedly rare (about 70 each year), any work-related death of a child is unacceptable. But in this particular example, it was unconscionable. Not only was the boy placed in an activity with known hazards, it is illegal for a child under 16 to be employed on a construction jobsite in the first place.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the construction industry employs less than 3% of all young workers, yet ranks third in the number of work-related fatalities to youth. Numerous other young people are injured - often seriously - while working on construction sites.
As you can imagine, any firm faced with the death or serious injury of a teen worker faces huge fines, potential lawsuits and even criminal charges, not to mention a groundswell of negative publicity - all of which could eventually bankrupt the business. As such, it's crucial to take steps to protect the youths in your employ, for their sake, as well as the viability of your business.
First off, make sure you are clear about what underage workers legally can and cannot do while in your employ. For example, anyone under the age of 16 is forbidden to operate power-driven equipment ? even a lawn mower ? and they are prohibited from working on a jobsite. NIOSH advises they be hired only for office or sales work. Workers under 18 are prohibited from driving a motor vehicle or operating most power-driven equipment, as well as from working in wrecking/demolition, roofing or excavation operations. The exception would be for youths enrolled in apprenticeship and student learning programs, as long as the specified training and supervision are provided.
Next, perform a hazard assessment of the jobs teen workers will likely be asked to perform. Make sure they will not encounter any unsafe situations or environments.
Once hired, make sure teen workers understand their responsibilities and limitations. Provide training on each task, then check to ensure they understand the procedures they should follow. Emphasize that they should only perform tasks for which they have been trained. If needed, supply appropriate and properly sized personal protective equipment, along with training on its use.
Finally, as with all workers, instill in teen employees the importance of adhering to safe work practices at all times, and make sure they understand the repercussions of failing to do so. Instruct them to ask questions whenever a task is unclear; this will help to minimize mistakes and potential safety risks.