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Protecting Young Workers
 
OSHA's Young Worker project and the Department of Labor's YouthRules!
initiative are reaching out to one of the most vulnerable classes of workers.


by Robert Nester


image of teen
Youth and relative inexperience make America's teenagers among the nation's most vulnerable classes of workers.

Every year, a large and vulnerable population of workers enters the American workforce for the first time. Perhaps one of them served you lunch last summer on your vacation. Maybe you encountered one ringing up your purchases on your last shopping spree. You are most likely to find them working in a retail environment, with the most common job descriptions being cashier and cook. They tend to be more visible and active during the summer months, but you can find them all year-round.

They are America's teenage workers. Whether they are entering the workforce for the first time or have been working steadily since they reached the federal legal work age of 14, their youth and relative inexperience makes teenage employees one of the nation's most vulnerable classes of workers. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, teenage workers have a higher rate of injury than their adult counterparts in similar jobs. In 1998 alone, 77,000 teens were treated for work-related injuries and illnesses in hospital emergency rooms.

Although they are young, inexperienced, and often more vulnerable than their older counterparts, teenage workers will remain a large and indispensable part of America's workforce. Surveys suggest that 80 percent of teens will work for pay at some point before leaving high school. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers show 2.8 million 16- and 17-year-olds employed in 2000. Clearly, the health and safety issues related to younger workers cannot be ignored.

To increase employer awareness of the need to emphasize on-the-job safety and health for youth employees, the Department of Labor unveiled the YouthRules! initiative last May. To support and complement the Departmental initiative, OSHA developed its own initiative, known as "Young Worker."

Created by OSHA's Directorate of Science, Technology, and Medicine, the Young Worker project has focused first on outreach. Its goal was to identify and address the needs of young workers for both employers and youth employees through stakeholder groups and conferences.

OSHA participated in the National Leadership and Skills Conference and the concurrent Trade Show for Technical Education last year. This annual conference is sponsored by SkillsUSA-VICA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preparing high school and college students enrolled in technical, skilled, and service occupational courses for workplace leadership. The conference and trade show showcase the talents of students from across the country in a national competition that pits state winners against each other for national titles in 73 leadership and hands-on occupational skill contests. The national winners move on to compete in a world skills competition.

OSHA Launches Teen Worker Site

OSHA's Teen worker site

Teen workers and their employers, parents, and educators now have a new page on the OSHA website dedicated to keeping America's working teens safe and healthy on the job. The Teen Workers page is part of OSHA's new initiative on young workers, and the agency's premier site for teen worker safety and health information. It offers educational resources such as fact sheets on workplace rights and responsibilities, hazards on the job, ways to prevent injuries, work hours, job restrictions, and more.

The new site, at www.osha.gov, links directly to the Department of Labor's YouthRules! webpage that focuses on the needs of young workers.

The 2002 conference was held in Kansas City, Mo., and a combination of OSHA employees from the Kansas City Area Office and the National Office to serve as judges for the competition and staff a booth at the trade show. At the OSHA booth, student workers tried on personal protective equipment (PPE) and participated in skill-building games. Some conference participants took advantage of the opportunity to don full PPE. OSHA judges evaluated contestants in the practical nursing category as well as a leadership development event. Other competition categories covered virtually all occupational skills, from automated manufacturing technology to carpentry to robotics to total quality management.

OSHA plans to increase its involvement in issues related to teenage workers as it develops its Young Worker initiative and continues to participate in SkillsUSA-VICA. Occupational safety and health professionals can get involved with SkillsUSA-VICA by volunteering as judges for state- and national-level competitions or by serving on technical committees or the state advisory board for the contests. For details, visit www.skillsusa.org.

Teenage employees are an ever-present factor in America's workforce, yet employers tend to overlook their unique vulnerabilities. OSHA's Young Worker initiative aims to change that by creating an environment in which employers will understand and endorse the need for early education in health and safety issues for their youngest employees. JSHQ

Nester is a health scientist and occupational health nurse in the OSHA Directorate of Science, Technology, and Medicine, Washington, D.C.