Hiring Young Workers and Keeping Them Safe (Update)

Diverse youth group illustration

Young, inexperienced workers are twice as likely to be injured on the job as their more experienced co-workers, and every year more than 50,000 youths are so badly injured at work that they need emergency medical treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That number doesn’t include the numerous cuts, bruises, and strains that don’t require a trip to the hospital.

Why are these figures so high? Most experts point to inexperience and lack of thorough job training.

Ways to Stay Safe on the Job

  • Report unsafe conditions to a shift/team leader or supervisor.
  • Wear any safety gear required to do your job.
  • Follow the safety rules.
  • Ask questions.
  • Ask for help if needed.

Reports of an upward trend in workplace safety violations involving Maine’s youth workers has safety advocates like MEMIC urging a closer look at the special training needs of the newest workers.

With labor law violations ranging from youths working without a permit or outside the hourly restrictions for their age to working in hazardous occupations not allowed under the law, most, if not all, of these injuries are preventable.

Yet state regulators in Maine recently reported workplace injuries to minors doubled over the past decade, from 162 in 2012 to 325 in 2022. In the second quarter of 2023, the department completed three investigations of youth workers injured while performing hazardous occupations they were not allowed to perform by law.

The violations were reported by the Maine Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which enforces employment laws such as the timely and full payment of wages, recordkeeping, overtime, tips, and child labor. More information here.

As employers experience a tight labor market and fill openings with younger workers, applications for minor work permits in Maine increased nearly 75% between 2017 and 2022, the Maine labor department reported. Of 4,700 work permit applications received thus far in 2023, about 200 were denied because the application was for a hazardous occupation youths, by law, are not allowed to perform.

As millions of young people join the labor force, especially during summer tourist season, some will find their first part-time job while others will land something more permanent.

MEMIC Vice President of Loss Control and Safety Maryann Hoff said a rising number of youths in the workforce means more workers are unfamiliar with the workplace environment and inexperienced with processes and safety. That inexperience, Hoff said, is the leading cause of injury for young workers. 

“Employers should take special care to introduce young employees to the work environment, including training in the unique elements of their operations, their assigned tasks as well as those happening around them, and how to stay safe and keep others safe when completing their work,” Hoff said. “Ensuring there is a thorough orientation and training, followed by frequent feedback reinforcing what they’re doing well and what they can do to improve on their safety, is essential to keeping young workers safe at work.

Most problems can be addressed by answering a few simple questions for your new employees before they get started:

  • Make sure the job being considered for a minor is not on the list of 17 Hazardous Occupations identified by the U.S. Secretary of Labor.  Prohibited work includes coal mining, driving motor vehicles, roofing and operating power-driven saws; the complete list can be viewed at youth.gov.
  • What are the hazards of their job? It’s tough to keep yourself safe if you don’t know what you should be keeping yourself safe from. Inexperienced workers will be better able to manage hazards once they fully understand them.
  • How much job safety training will they have? Employers are required by law to provide job hazard training that’s easy to follow. Remember, a more thorough explanation is always worth the extra few minutes.
  • Will they need to use safety gear, and if so, how? Employers may also be required by law to provide protective gear at no cost to their employees. Whether that means safety glasses, ear plugs, gloves, steel-toed boots, or something else, make sure you discuss proper equipment. What may seem like common sense to seasoned employees may be intimidating for teens starting their first jobs.
  • Are they capable of doing the work and do they have any physical or medical conditions that would put them at risk (e.g. asthma, eyesight, strength)?
  • If they are expected to drive on the job, are they experienced? Data indicate the crash rate per mile driven is about 1.5 times as high for 16-year-old drivers as it is for 18– and 19-year-old drivers.
  • If they have health and safety concerns, who do they ask? Whether it’s their supervisor or a designated workplace safety coordinator, it’s critical for new employees to know there’s someone who can knowledgeably address their concerns. Creating an environment open to questions and conversation can help mitigate embarrassment or hesitation on the part of inexperienced workers.
  • What do they do in an emergency? Be sure to review your workplace’s emergency protocol. Where is the nearest fire exit to their workstation? Do they have a designated meeting spot once they’re out of immediate danger? By holding emergency drills, you can identify any uncertainty about exit protocol. Doing training at the beginning of seasonal employment is especially important.
  • What do they do if they get hurt at work? Let young workers know how important it is to report any injury they might sustain in the workplace. Unfamiliarity with the workers’ compensation process could lead to hazardous and costly delays in reporting.

More than anything, employers should remain mindful of the relative inexperience of young workers, which can be alleviated by thorough training and proper supervision.

As your partner in workplace safety, MEMIC is committed to creating a work environment that’s healthy and accessible for every employee. With these questions, employers can build a foundation of safety knowledge that helps reinforce everyday wellbeing for all.

OSHA Employer Responsibilities for Keeping Young Workers Safe

  • Understand and comply with the relevant federal and state child labor laws. For example, these laws prohibit youth from working certain hours and from performing dangerous/hazardous work.
  • Ensure that young workers receive training to recognize hazards and are competent in safe work practices. Training should be in a language and vocabulary that workers can understand and should include prevention of fires, accidents and violent situations and what to do if injured.
  • Implement a mentoring or buddy system for new young workers. Have an adult or experienced young worker answer questions and help the new young worker learn the ropes of a new job.
  • Encourage young workers to ask questions about tasks or procedures that are unclear or not understood. Tell them whom to ask.
  • Remember that young workers are not just "little adults." You must be mindful of the unique aspects of communicating with young workers.
  • Ensure that equipment operated by young workers is both legal and safe for them to use. Employers should label equipment that young workers are not allowed to operate.
  • Tell young workers what to do if they get hurt on the job.

This an updated version of “Hiring Young Workers and Keeping Them Safe,” from the July 11, 2013, MEMIC Safety Net Blog.