Keeping young workers safe

In 2007, 133 teenagers died from workplace accidents, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As the sound of the final school bell of the year approaches, employers need to ensure that its teenaged workforce is as safe as possible.

OSHA, for years, has placed an emphasis on protecting teenage workers. Employers must remember that, while there are some benefits to utilizing teen workers, it also brings to light some problems that many may not consider. For example, certain occupations cannot hire workers 16 or younger and other jobs have restrictions on the number of hours a teen can work. Construction-type jobs have even more restrictions.

So employers should check the child labor laws to ensure that they are in compliance with federal labor laws.

As a perspective employer, there are issues you may not completely understand.

First, they are teenagers. This means that most do not have a long work history, so what many of us would consider to be basic common sense is a whole new world to teens. Without having that background to draw on, many can make simple mistakes that lead to problems, whether that is in the form of injuries or compliance issues.

When hiring teen workers, always take the time up front to give them the information they need. Never take anything for granted. Your training needs to be an appropriate blend of applicable OSHA regulations and company policies. Don't make it too heavy or too long. If you do, you will lose them. Whenever conducting training especially for younger workers utilize the KISS principle "Keep it Sweet and Simple." It's better to spend an extra hour or two in advance covering the basics than later spending hours on paperwork, investigations (mandated by NSR 618.383) and potential litigation. And always document all training sessions. Just like your regular adult workers, document with a sign-in sheet and use some form of quiz at the end to ensure that your points got across. Many teens are simply afraid to ask questions. This will help you to gauge how much of your information they retained.

Second, they are teenagers. This means they will likely forget some of the information you provided them.

Always keep an eye on them for the first couple of weeks. Teen years are hard years; harder than when many of us were in school. There are different pressures facing teens today, from scholastic goals to peer pressure. And because of this, their attention span may not be what we would expect. Consider a mentoring program for at least the first few weeks. That mentor can be an existing adult employee or maybe a teenage employee you have used over previous summers.

Third, they are teenagers. Another good idea is to implement some form of cell phone and texting policy. I challenge you to find a teenager that is not in the basic "Blackberry Prayer" position at least 10 times a day. These simple distractions can lead to accidents in less time than it takes to text "LOL."

Fourth, they are teenagers. Their idea of appropriate wardrobe may not be the safest workforce attire. Low-rise pants present everything from a tripping hazard to the danger of accidentally getting caught in moving machinery. Hoodies can obstruct peripheral vision, and like the low-rise pants may pose a hazard around machinery as well. Piercings ... I could write volumes on those but the big concern is that they are made of metal which is highly conductive. Again, due to their lack of job knowledge and experience, teens may not realize that electricity can jump. So as the employer, you need to address this by either assigning them to a job that does not expose them to electrical hazards such as welding or even basic building maintenance, or by requiring them to remove their piercings while at work.

Fifth, they are teenagers. Never rely on OJT on the job training. Tossing a teenage worker into the mix without giving them the required and necessary training is not a wise move and in many cases it is not allowed.

I remember my last summer job before entering into the military. I was drilling bedrock to prepare it for underground cable. The crew foreman gave me a full 30 seconds of training on how to blast with dynamite.

I kid you not. In that whole 30 seconds I was "instructed" on how to snap a stick of dynamite in half, insert a blasting cap using a Phillips-head screw driver to make the necessary hole for the blasting cap and how to lay out the wires and pack the hole with wet sand - 30 seconds. Now this was back in the early '70s before OSHA and many of the child-labor laws were established. But even without OSHA, someone should have thought this to be a bad idea. Guess not!

Sixth, they are teenagers. They consider themselves bullet-proof. Think back to when you were that age.

The thought of reaching 30 never entered into your mind. You took chances, took shortcuts and at times probably made your own rules. So in this aspect, there really isn't much difference between teens of today and when we were teens.

And finally keep in mind that OSHA does have some great information available on its website, www.osha.gov/SLTC/youth/summerjobs/index.html. Here you can find useful information that addresses many of the common summer-type employment concerns. Industries such as restaurants, parks and recreation, life guard and safe driving are only a few of the topics that are available.

Please keep in mind that yes, they are teenagers, but they are somebody's son or daughter. Treat them as you would if you were hiring your own. If you do this, you will be providing that safe workplace we all strive for.

Scott Alquist is the manager of the Truckee Meadows Community College Safety Center and is the program manager for all safety, OSHA and regulatory compliance courses for TMCC Workforce Development and Continuing Education Division. Contact him at salquist@tmcc.edu or 857-4958.

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