Protecting Young Workers’ Health and Safety
It has been well recognised for many years that the most vulnerable groups of workers in society are both young persons and younger workers and there are many obvious reasons for this. Whether it’s entering the workforce directly from school or working whilst at school, there is no doubt that the real world of work with all of its inherent complications is often a shock to the system as it is so difficult to prepare a young person for that often problematic transition. We have all experienced it in our own lives and it is not a good feeling; that first day in the work environment being wide-eyed and unprepared, not knowing what is going on or what we are supposed to do. For our own discussions, we are talking about both those who are defined in the legal sense as a young person and young workers. In Ireland, the legislative framework for managing young persons in the workplace is spelled out in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations 2007 which defines a ‘young person’ as a person who has reached 16 years of age but is less than 18 years of age, but also young workers too from 18 through to 25 years of age. “Young people between 15 and 19 years of age make up approximately 4% of the working population but contribute around 10% of all reported injuries”
The second decade of this new century is also a difficult time to be entering the workforce as the days of a job for life, in the industrial sense at least, are well behind us now. The environment of temporary work, short-term contract work and possibly even zero-hours contracts does not give a welcoming feeling to anyone, let alone more vulnerable young workers. Our collective societal drive for having competitive businesses that provide low-cost services can result in businesses that cut corners and don’t fully subscribe to full compliance with the appropriate regulations. Such businesses may also consider health and safety as a cost and not a benefit. Young workers in this type of environment can find these difficult and sometimes dangerous places to work.
So what makes young workers so vulnerable?
A young person or younger workers perspective is undeveloped; the lack of real-life experience is to be expected and they need guidance and protection through this vulnerable time. It’s important to highlight that the health and safety risk to young people in the workplace is real as figures from the Irish Central Statistics Office illustrate. Young people between 15 and 19 years of age make up approximately 4% of the working population but contribute around 10% of all reported injuries  – that is a disturbing figure but it’s not just an Irish issue. In 2014 in the U.S., the rate of work-related injuries treated in emergency departments for workers, aged 15–19 was 2.18 times greater than the rate for workers 25 years of age and older and in the same year, the rate of work-related injuries treated in emergency departments for workers aged 20–24, was 1.76 times greater than the rate for workers 25 years of age and older . Understanding the vulnerabilities of this demographic is one thing but how can employers actually manage these issues in the real world and what sort of arrangements can be put into place to manage the risk?
What can employers do to protect young workers?
Employers must ensure the health and safety of all employees and provide a safe place of work but in addition:
- All employers must assess risk in the workplace, including the risks present to young persons (as defined in law) but also to young workers in general where a lack of experience, training and skill could have an impact on their health and safety.
- Employers must recognise that there are certain activities that young persons must not be involved in and where younger workers will need careful stewardship. Such issues include but are not limited to:
- exposure to harmful chemicals and agents and exposure to harmful radiation,
- activities which are beyond their physical or psychological capacity,
- exposure to environmental extremes and to physical agents such as noise or vibration.
Schedule 7 to the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations, 2007 is a useful reference and details a non-exhaustive guide list of agents, processes and work activities that young persons should be protected from.
Employers need to provide information to young workers
A useful process in which to provide information is by a safety induction or employee induction process. This can be tailored to this particular group, taking into consideration their probable lack of any knowledge of legislation, rules and regulations but it is also of importance is to educate them about their own obligation as employees under the law. This aspect is too often forgotten about but the law is clear in this regard and needs to be emphasised from the start.
A safety induction programme could over aspects such as:
- Basic overview of HSE legislation
- Rights and responsibilities of employers and employees
- The organisation’s safety statement – what it is and where it is available
- Work activities and workplace risks including risk assessment and hierarchy of control
- Stop the job or right to stop work
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) requirements
- Reporting problems such as unsafe conditions and unsafe acts
- Buddy or mentor system for new employees who are young workers
The regulations are clear on what employers are required to do and the procedures and processes to protect these workers are widely available but are also easy to implement. However, there is one dangerous combination that leaves this demographic especially vulnerable to injury in the industrial workplace; the lack of experience of young people and an employer who does not operate to acceptable safety standards or indeed may even be negligent in that regard. There are many examples to choose from to illustrate this particular point but a recent accident in Lancashire, England once again shows that some employers, either through ignorance or negligence still do not implement recognised effective risk management controls not only for their mature employees but also for this especially vulnerable group.
A young worker seriously injured by an unguarded machine
In November 2016 a 17-year-old worker was seriously injured at a company called Malcolm E. Taylor Ltd  when his left forearm was caught and dragged into a cladding roll-forming machine which was not properly guarded. The result of this totally avoidable accident was that a young person now has restricted use of his left arm and is left in chronic pain. The unfortunate irony here is that machinery guarding is one of a number of well-understood controls against injury on these machines and the minimum requirements should have been in place here. The cost to have effective machine guarding in place, properly risk assess the machine and process and the time taken to properly instruct, mentor and supervise that 17-year-old would have been minimal in terms of a company’s overall cost base. Instead, this individual who would not be knowledgeable about machinery guarding was left in a vulnerable position operating a dangerous machine by an ignorant employer with resulting life-changing injuries. The cost to the company after admitting breaching the regulations was a £12,000 fine and costs of £2,967 – everyone was left in a worse situation after the accident.
Young workers and young persons have a significant contribution to make in our myriad workplaces and it is they who will be the established workforce into the future, so we owe it to them to show by our own example that safety is important and that their safety and health and that of ourselves trumps everything else. By educating this demographic, especially about risk in terms of their own working environment, we can hope that they will reject low standards of safety whenever and wherever they may find it in their working lives but also be a positive influence to help the next generation of young workers and young person’s when they start out. This group is adaptable, energetic, enthusiastic but also vulnerable; let’s give them the best start we can and provide for them exactly what we would like for our own sons and daughters.
1 – HSA, Summary of Workplace Injury, Illness and Fatality Statistics, 2006–2007
2 – https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/youth/default.html
3 – http://press.hse.gov.uk/2018/company-fined-after-employee-injured-by-machinery/