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Workplace Health and Safety

Keeping America’s Youngest Workforce Safe on the Job

Photo: Courtesy of Matthew Hamilton

Everyone teaches kids about the importance of safety at the swimming pool or in the kitchen. But schools don’t necessarily prepare students to think about health and safety when it comes to the workplace.

“Unfortunately, kids can get hurt on the job,” says Deborah Nelson Ph.D., CIH, board president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA). “They’re new to it, they don’t know what the hazards are, and they often don’t know what their rights are in the workplace.”

Identifying risks and hazards

Working teens and adolescents face significant hazards in the workplace. On average, according to AIHA, 60,000 workers under the age of 18 are sent to the emergency room annually due to job-related incidents and 37 suffer fatal accidents. Some of the largest risk factors that contribute to these accidents are caused by transportation-related incidents, slips, trips, and falls and workplace violence.

Risk factors are everywhere, from construction to food service to retail. Even a familiar fast-food job can expose employees to serious health hazards such as slippery floors, working around sharp objects or distracted driving. Employers and employees also need to think about long-term occupational illnesses such as respiratory or cardiovascular diseases which result in 10 times as many fatalities a year than from occupational injury.

“As a country, we tend to focus on injuries and not think so much about overall health,” Nelson says. “When you get hurt at work, you know right away that you’re hurt. But when you have low-level exposures over a prolonged period of time, it can take years for these diseases to develop.”

Looking forward

Fortunately, employees can access educational resources such as the websites for the AIHA’s Safety Matters Center, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which all communicate rights, responsibilities and expectations that workers should know about.

While challenges remain, Nelson sees a bright future for workplace safety culture, which started in part with the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). Now, for example, states including Oklahoma and Texas have already started working to bring workplace health education into the state curriculum, which will help kids and teens stay safe.

“The OSHA regulations were always intended just to be a starting point — just the very beginning for safety and health,” Nelson explains. “There have been some real advances in the understanding and knowledge of what the hazards are and how to protect people from them.”

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