OSHA seeks to teach young workers safety

Population vulnerable to injury

Much of the attention of occupational health professionals has recently been focused on the aging segment of the working population, and with good reason. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore our youngest workers, and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is going to make sure we don’t.

Beginning about a year ago, OSHA took the first steps toward creating what now is known as The Young Worker Initiative, which targets individuals between the ages of 12 and 24. "It started semiformally in early 2003, and eventually became part of the OSHA strategic plan," recalls Elise Handelman, RN, COHN-S, MEd, director of the office of occupational health nursing in the Directorate of Science, Technology & Medicine in OSHA’s national office.

This initiative goes farther than just targeting teen workers, who mostly take summer jobs, she explains. "We’re looking at a broader base — we’re trying to get people who are entering the work force." College-age workers who work part-time but year-round to help pay their tuition also are "very typical," Handelman adds.

The rationale for the initiative, she notes, was the desire to "protect the next generation," which became OSHA’s motto. "Our goal is to get workers who are just developing their work skills and habits to incorporate safety and health into those newfound habits and skills," she observes.

Traits differentiate group

This particular group of workers is very vulnerable, says Handelman, because of their age and because, in terms of knowing how to take care of themselves at work, they are a blank slate. "We are trying to develop a sense of empowerment among them, so they will be able to take action if they feel they are in an unsafe condition," she says. "Sometimes employers ask them to do things they haven’t been trained to do or not have the necessary experience to do, and in an effort to please an adult they will do it."

One of the main areas of focus for the initiative, then, is on actions young workers can take to protect themselves and on alerting employers to their unique characteristics. These characteristics, Handelman says, include:

  • vulnerability;
  • a desire to please adults;
  • lack of experience;
  • physical growth spurts; constant change physically to which the worker has not had a chance to adjust;
  • a sense of invincibility.

The initiative has several key elements, says Handelman. "One of the first things we did was develop a teen worker web site, which you can reach right off our home page," she says.

In addition, she reports, the Federal Network for Young Worker Safety & Health (FedNet) will shortly have its own site. "We are cojoining nine federal agencies with activities related to young workers," says Handelman. "Our goal is to reduce redundancies and to share resources. For example, National Institute for Occupational Safety (NIOSH) and Health has developed a curriculum for safety & health for vocational/technical workers, and we’ve been able to hook them up with the Job Corps."

FedNet also seasonally publishes a summer jobs site, focusing the on the types of jobs teens traditionally have in the summertime: lawn care, farm work, construction, restaurants, safe driving, lifeguarding, and parks and recreation. "We provide information about the jobs teens typically have in the summer," says Handelman.

According to NIOSH, each year about 70 teens die and about 77,000 are injured seriously enough to require hospital treatment. An estimated 230,000 working teens may be injured each year.

"Last summer, we learned of two fatalities of underage workers [ages 15 and 16] on forklifts," Handelman shares. "As a result, we collaborated with NIOSH and the Wage & Hour division of the Employment Standards Administration, mailing out 5,000 information packets to alert small employers to the hazards of teen-age operators." In fact, she adds, a worker is not supposed to operate a forklift if he or she is younger than 18.

OSHA also is continuing to work with it alliance partners. "A number of them have young workers as a focus for the alliance," says Handelman. "They include the Industrial Truck Association, the International Logistics Warehousing Association, and the National Safety Council. A whole slew of them have components related to young workers."

Among the most important issues, she continues, is employer awareness of how to deal differently with these younger workers. "Make sure employers are aware of prohibited jobs for teens," she advises. (You can get to this information from the teen worker web page by clicking "My State" at the top of OSHA’s web page, www.osha.gov.)

Occ-health professionals in the jobs areas frequented by younger workers need to be especially on alert for job tasks or equipment that may have the potential for injury. "In health care, for example, kids may work in the kitchen and be around heavy equipment, like grinders or ovens," she notes, "And some of those tasks are prohibited. For example, grounds keeping activities like using ride-on lawnmowers or chain saws are prohibited."

For additional information, see these other targeted sites: YouthRules! Initiative — www.youthrules.dol.gov; Fair Labor Standards Act Advisor — www.dol.gov/elaws/esa/flsa/docs/haznonag.asp; web page with occ-health and safety information for young workers — www.osha.gov/SLTC/teenworkers/index.html.

[For more information, contact:

Elise Handelman, RN, COHN-S, MEd, OSHA Directorate of Science, Technology & Medicine. Telephone: (202) 693-2120.]