Many U.S. Teens Work Dangerous Jobs

Armen Hareyan's picture
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A new survey suggests that millions of American teenagers are working in hazardous environments, performing dangerous tasks in violation of the law and without proper training or supervision.

Among teens surveyed who worked in the service or retail industries, 52 percent of boys and 43 percent of girls reported working with dangerous equipment such as slicers, paper-balers and box-crushers. Meanwhile, 37 percent of those under 16 reported working past 7 p.m. on school nights, which is illegal.

"Most teenagers work, their work can be dangerous, and we haven''t been paying enough attention to the dangers. We can do better," said study author Carol Runyan, director of the Injury Prevention Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Her team published its findings in the March issue of Pediatrics.

While between 75 percent and 80 percent of teenagers work before they graduate from high school, there hasn''t been much research into the possible dangers they face on the job, Runyan said. At the same time, rates of on-the-job deaths for Americans 17 years of age and under have remained steady at about 68 fatalities per year throughout the 1990s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"I''m trying to learn more about things these kids are exposed to at work," Runyan said, "and think about how we can make work safer for kids."

In the new survey, her team interviewed 866 adolescent workers aged 13-18 by phone in 2003. All worked in the retail or service industries, including fast-food restaurants and grocery stores, among other businesses.

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The teens reported working an average of 16.2 hours per week. Females (84 percent) were more likely than males (61 percent) to handle cash -- putting them at risk of robbery -- while males handled more physically demanding tasks.

Such tasks included lifting boxes, taking out the garbage and loading and unloading trucks, Runyan said. "There are a number of things that kids do behind the scenes that you don''t see as a customer," she said. "That''s where some of that [injury] takes place."

Of those who worked at restaurants or grocery stores, 17.5 percent surveyed reported using power slicing tools or grinders, something minors are forbidden to do under federal law. Nearly half of those teens reported engaging in at least one work activity that''s illegal for people under 18 years of age.

One-third of those surveyed said they''d never received any type of safety training, and one in four said they had worked without adult supervision.

"A large part of it is ignorance," Runyan said. "I''m sure there are some businesses where they know they shouldn''t be having kids do this stuff, but they do it anyway. But I would guess in a lot of cases, it''s a matter of the business managers or the supervisors, several layers down, who don''t know that these things are illegal. Our support system hasn''t done a good enough job of educating employers and making it clear there''s teeth to the law."

What to do? Runyan said parents need to be aware of workplace risks and make sure their children take jobs that are safe. "They need to ask a lot of questions when kids are looking at jobs or taking jobs and maybe visit the workplace, doing some investigation, letting them know they''re paying attention."

Dr. Rosemary Sokas, director of the Division of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, agreed. "Workplaces need to know the law and follow it, and parents need to be parents. There is no excuse for a 15-year-old to be out working at 11 p.m. on a school night, and a 16-year-old should not be operating a deep-fat fryer."

As for teens, they should be aware that "it''s not their responsibility to make the workplace safe," Runyan said. "The more they know about their rights to work in a safe environment, the more they can exercise those rights."

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