Last summer, more than half of Americans from ages 16 to 24 years old held jobs, up 2.1 million from the year before. As the economy continues to recover, we expect to see more jobs become available for younger people. These workers can bring energy and enthusiasm to businesses. But they also present a unique set of safety and compliance challenges that every employer should be familiar with.
When hiring workers younger than age 18, employers must keep in mind that state laws place restrictions on the type of work they can do and the number of hours they can work in an effort to protect them.
Teenagers need this protection. It’s not just typical teenage behavior that puts them at risk, though that also plays a factor. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, young workers carry a greater risk of occupational injury because of their limited job knowledge, training and skill. Physically they are not fully developed and may be more susceptible to chemical and other exposures at work.
Every year, about 67 teenage workers die of work injuries, and NIOSH estimates that 230,000 teenagers suffer from nonfatal occupational injuries.
Prior to hiring any worker younger than 18, you should check both federal and state labor law. State laws vary and should be checked individually.
The main federal law governing underage (and other) workers is the Fair Labor Standards Act, which applies to virtually all employers and businesses except small farms and a few others. This law bans workers younger than 18 from performing a wide variety of hazardous jobs, including:
- manufacturing or storing explosives
- driving a motor vehicle and being an outside helper on a motor vehicle
- coal or other mining
- logging and sawmilling
- operating most power-driven equipment
- those involving any exposure to radioactive substances or ionizing radiations
- manufacturing brick, tile and related products
- operating any power-driven circular saws, band saws or guillotine shears
- wrecking, demolition or ship-breaking operations
- roofing and work performed on or near roofs, including installing or working on antennas and roof-top appliances, or
- excavation operations.
Many states add other restrictions. For instance, in California no one under 18 is allowed to handle, serve or sell alcohol; operate meat slicers, or work as an outside helper on a motor vehicle. Californian workers under the age of 16 may not wash cars, load or unload trucks, work on a ladder or scaffold or work after 9 p.m. (7 p.m. from Labor Day to May 31).
The Labor Occupational Health Program at the University of California, Berkeley has performed extensive research into mitigating the dangers facing youth workers. The program’s experts list a number of best practices from the field that help keep youngsters safe.
- Assign a mentor: A California zoo assigns each new teen worker a “buddy” or mentor. This can even be a more experienced teen worker who answers questions, helps give hands-on training and offers safety tips.
- Role-playing: A retail clothing chain with many young employees uses role-playing regularly at monthly safety meetings. Young workers enact specific health and safety problems and develop solutions.
- Age by color: A convenience store chain outfits young employees with different colored uniforms based on age. This lets the supervisors know at a glance who is not allowed to operate the electric meat slicer.
- Track hours: A fast food chain employing some 8,000 young workers in five states developed a computerized tracking system to ensure that teens aren’t scheduled for too many hours during school weeks.
- Add responsibility: A major grocery chain includes teen workers on the safety committee that conducts safety inspections, reviews employee injuries and makes suggestions for prevention.
Finally, don’t assume that workers out of their teens have much job experience. Youth unemployment rates have been unusually high for many of the past years, so even workers in their early 20s might not have much work experience. Take extra care to ensure these workers know any safety precautions required for the job, and when possible, pair them with an experienced mentor.