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Ask any occupational health consultant in your workplace, “What are worker safety issues we need to watch out for?” You’ll get responses ranging from heart defibrillators to safety training and a host of responsibilities for older workers. But young workers get injured at extremely high rates. They’re a blind spot for most safety programs in high-risk workplaces.

Risks facing young workers and why young workers are more likely to be injured

Most young workers, not surpassingly, don’t have a full understanding of what risks they face. We think about young people as feeling invincible, but it’s more complicated than that.

It’s not just youth and “invincibility” that causes issues for young workers. Young workers experience more job-to-job transfers. They are more likely to be moved into new positions, job sites, and be transient with part-time work. Like any new worker, they’re least likely to have adequate training and real-world practice.

Who is classed as a young worker?

Anyone under 25, but much of the OSHA reporting and data suggests many injuries occur on the 15-18-year-old scale than in the 20s.

Photo of five young construction workers

What hazards do young workers face?

Beyond obvious inexperience and cognitive development, youth face a lot of things we remember from when we were kids:

  • Being distracted, either by other people, school, family issues, or boredom
  • Lack of preparation or a sense that preparation and planning is unnecessary
  • Unfocused attention in safety training and during OSHA or other safety programs
  • Lack of concern for their health, partly because they may have never needed to be
  • Lack of clarity on questions to ask related to the job or employer
  • Unsure when to ask for assistance, often out of fear of appearing incompetent
  • Little understanding of their rights and the responsibility they have for worker safety

What are the top causes of injuries to young workers?

  • Lifting objects that cause sprains. This goes for workers in warehouses to sales clerks.
  • Working high up, particularly on scaffolding and ladders.
  • Working with knives in kitchens and warehouses. Obvious cuts and lacerations are of concern.
  • Working with hot liquids or other substances, such as in restaurants and near broilers, burners, and boilers.
  • Driving while on the job is just as danger-prone to young people as driving to the job or out with friends.
  • Machinery, like lathes, conveyors, food processing, and drills pose significant risks, mostly in cuts and burns.

Ways to prevent injuries to young workers

Not surprisingly, young workers need just as much if not more attention than other adult workers.

  • Prepare them for the safe handling of equipment and work. Show them what can happen, what has happened internally or elsewhere, and ask them to assess hazards routinely.
  • Train them on safe movements in repetitive motions.
  • Ask them to tell you what to do if they spot a hazard, what to do in an emergency, and that reporting incidents doesn’t come with repercussions.
  • Consider increased drug and alcohol testing, functional exams, and physician oversight for young workers. It will help them recognize they’re not invincible.

Health and safety training for young workers

Training programs for young workers don’t have to be any different than what you do for more mature workers. They use the same materials, shift timing, and have the same health and safety concerns you do.

Your orientation program doesn’t need to be significantly different either. Just because they’re 17 years old doesn’t mean they need instructional videos uploaded to YouTube to be trained properly.

Follow the same OSHA standards, materials handling, and national occupational safety and health protocols you ordinarily would.

The difference comes in increasing oversight. Consider extended job shadow and partner training. If you usually have adult workers shadow someone for 14 days, consider 28 days for young workers.

If you ask standard, randomized questions of adult workers once a shift, consider asking young workers twice a shift. The responsibility of employers is to teach and educate young people. Their job is to gain experience, learn skills, follow standards, and become a productive worker.

Your ability to provide them with a safe workplace ensures they don’t become another in a growing list of statistics.

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