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May 24, 2010
'Would You Like Fries with That?': Serving Up Safety with Those Summer Jobs

Teens are exchanging book bags for lunch bags as they finish the school year and start summer jobs. Thousands of young people will temporarily enter the workforce this season. As an employer, it’s your legal and moral duty to protect them on the job.

According to NIOSH, more needs to be done to keep them safe. On average, each year from 1998 to 2007 about 800,000 workers ages 15 to 24 were treated in hospital emergency rooms. And nearly 600 died as a result of job-related injuries.

In a recent blog post, NIOSH’s Dawn Castillo cited new research suggesting that “more needs to be done to ensure that as young people join the workforce they’re better protected from hazards.” Castillo heads the Surveillance and Field Investigations Branch in the NIOSH Division of Safety Research. According to the data, younger workers were twice as likely as their older colleagues to be treated in the ER for job-related injuries.

What’s the Problem?

Past research suggested that the increased risk for young employees was a result of increased hazards (like knives and ladders), as well as pressure to get the job done quickly. Minority status has also been cited as a factor, as has younger workers’ lack of knowledge, training, and skills. Teens are also less likely than older workers to voice concerns about safety and are less familiar with their rights.

The NIOSH data looking at emergency room data showed that the most frequent cause of death for those 15 to 24 was transportation accidents, which is also the biggest overall killer of employees. The biggest cause of injuries was contact with objects or equipment, which includes being struck by equipment, caught in tools, or crushed by machinery.

NIOSH also found that younger men are more frequently hurt or killed than younger women. And more young Hispanic workers were killed than non-Hispanic white and non-Hispanic black workers.

Talking Safety

If you have young workers on the payroll, or plan to, you may wish to download a new NIOSH publication titled Talking Safety. Although its primary purpose is as a school curriculum, there’s lots of usable content for employers to use in training young workers and managers.

At the website, http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/talkingsafety, NIOSH has made available versions of the booklet for each state and Puerto Rico. Also included are instructions for teachers and a step-by-step guide for presenting the material.

Another helpful resource is the NIOSH young worker topics page at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/youth. Content includes a fact sheet for working teens about their rights under the law, a school safety checklist, case studies about reducing teen incidents, and a variety of resources, including research documents.

The curriculum is teen-friendly and includes team exercises that get young people thinking about solutions. In one of these exercises, participants are introduced to Billy, a 16-year-old who works in a fast food restaurant. One day Billy slips on a greasy floor. To catch his fall, he grabs onto a bar near the grill. But he misses it and receives second-degree burns on the palm of his hand when he touches the hot grill instead.

The instructor asks the teams, “What solutions can you think of that might prevent this injury from happening again?” The teams get a minute to write down their suggestions. Then they are asked to compare them to answers provided.

In this scenario, answers include removing the hazard (by designing the grill so it is not so close or covering the floor with a nonskid mat), personal protective equipment, or work policies (like requiring that workers immediately clean up spills or reconfiguring foot traffic so workers won’t walk past the grill).

Same Rules Apply

Although summer workers will not be with you for the long term, many of the same strategies for keeping them safe apply. Management commitment is essential. It means a great deal to a teen when the big boss knows his or her name, walks the floor or line personally, and follows the rules everyone else is expected to follow, like wearing gloves and a hair net.

You should also find ways to get young workers involved in safety. Young people are creative and enthusiastic; their participation on a safety committee can yield great ideas. Make sure to get their opinions on how to make the workplace safer before they leave to return to school. Sometimes, those who have had a limited amount of time on the job have a perspective that those who have been there for years lack. Asking one’s views is a sign of respect—it says management cares who you are and what you think, no matter how long you’ll be on the payroll.

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