For many young workers — usually defined as those under the age of 25 — earning their keep is a novel and empowering experience. Financial independence aside, the work experience gained is another pull factor that entices many young people to seek employment. But the ardour of youth and the eagerness to learn can put these young employees in vulnerable positions. Their limited experience, coupled with the possibility that they may not receive proper safety training if they are on the job for only a short period of time, enhances their risks at work.
When it comes to workplace injuries, the risk for young people is as much as twice that of adults when one takes into account that youth tend to work fewer hours than adults do. Although they work 10 per cent of the hours of all workers, they injure themselves at a rate of 16 per cent, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) in Hamilton, Ontario, which cited a 2008 study from Institut de Recherche Robert-Sauvé en Santé et en Sécurité du Travail in Quebec. Each year, more than 48,000 young workers are injured seriously enough to require time off work.
Young workers may be more prone to specific types of injuries. A study on lost-time claims by WorkSafeBC in Richmond, British Columbia shows that young people face a higher risk of open-wound injuries like scrapes, cuts, lacerations and burns. The following lists the top seven dangers that young workers in the province face each year: lifting objects; elevated levels; knives; hot substances or objects; mobile equipment or vehicles; food slicer; and running equipment or machinery.
Since young workers are often students entering the workforce for the first time, they are typically employed in seasonal, short-term, temporary, casual and part-time jobs. The industries in which young workers are found include the service sector in retail and sales, food services, grocery stores and small businesses. The CCOHS adds to that work in offices, landscaping, tree planting, construction and painting as positions that young people commonly hold.
Although gender, age, ethnicity and risk-taking behaviour are sometimes regarded as factors that could influence the level of danger young workers face, the job itself is the single most important determinant in occupational risk. A systematic review of risk factors for work injury among youth by Toronto’s Institute for Work and Health (IWH), published in 2006, concludes that exposure to work hazards and work overload — not the young worker’s individual characteristics — have the strongest association for risk.
As more than half of workplace incidents occur during the first six months on a job, it is important that employers provide proper workplace orientation once a new worker is hired. The New and Young Worker Employer Guide developed by Workplace Safety North, a not-for-profit health and safety organization in North Bay, Ontario, recommends that such an orientation should be between one and four hours in duration. Employers should review a worker’s understanding and document the orientation after it has been delivered.
The guide also advises employers to instruct young workers to ask questions and not to perform tasks until they have been properly trained. Since young workers sometimes think that they are invincible, employers need to make them aware of the dangers and educate them on the risks associated with taking safety shortcuts and the importance of wearing safety equipment. For their part, supervisors should correct unsafe acts and conditions, establish and enforce health and safety rules and inspect the workplace for hazards. It is also the employer’s responsibility to make sure that workers are trained before they are allowed to operate tools and equipment or handle hazardous chemicals.
Young workers can safeguard their own well-being by knowing their labour rights: the right to know about workplace hazards, the right to participate in workplace occupational health and safety activities, and the right to refuse unsafe work. They should also look out for signs, as early on as the initial job interview, to assess whether an employer takes occupational safety seriously.
The CCOHS cites the donning of proper safety gear by employees and the presence of safety posters and warning signs in the workplace and in hazardous areas as among the telltale signs of a safe workplace. During training, it is good practice to seek guidance from experienced employees about safety hazards. Young workers should also ask for written safety instructions if they have not been provided. Finally, they should be taught how to use personal protective equipment and notify the employer of any symptoms such as headaches, dizziness or irritation to the throat, eyes or skin.
Young workers may be vulnereable, but there are indications that young worker safety may be improving. An IWH study published in 2009 found that in some Canadian jurisdictions like Ontario and Quebec, the rate of time-loss claims for men under the age of 25 had declined significantly between 2000 and 2007. In fact, the number of injuries in Quebec had decreased to the point that they reached the same level as that of older workers. Researchers have also noted a downward trend among young female workers in Ontario and Quebec.
Jean Lian is editor of OHS Canada.