Young workers

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Jennifer Webster, Health & Safety Laboratory, UK


Introduction

This article uses the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) definition of young workers [1] as those within the age group of 15 to 24 years. This group also includes children who are legally defined as anyone under the age of 18 years of age and adolescents between the ages of 15 to 18 years of age who are defined as no longer in education. Within the 15 to 24 year old age group are full and part-time workers; temporary workers; young workers still in full-time education who are working part-time to supplement their income either throughout the year or vacation time only; apprentices contracted to an employer, usually on a full time basis and trainees between the ages of 15 to 24 years in non-contractual work. What they all have in common is their lack of workplace experience and relative immaturity, which means they may not always be fully aware of how their work affects not only their own occupational safety and health (OSH) but the OSH of those around them. Young workers may also be unsure or afraid to ask for help or information because they are not used to questioning an adult. As a result, compared with the rest of the workforce, young workers are 50% more likely to be involved in an accident at work [2].


European legislation: An overview

Council Directive 94/33/EC [3] prohibits work by children and stipulates work by adolescents to be strictly regulated and protected as required by the Directive. Employers must guarantee that the working conditions of young workers are appropriate for their age. The provisions of the directive apply to young workers under 18 years of age. Young workers below this age shall be prohibited to do work which:

  • Exceeds their physical or mental capacities
  • Exposes them to substances that are toxic or cause cancer
  • Exposes them to radiation
  • Involves extreme heat, noise or vibration
  • Involves risks that they are unlikely to recognise or avoid because of their lack of experience or training or their insufficient attention to safety.


Workplace risks and young workers

In a review of 189 scientific journals published between 1994 and 2005, Laberge and Ledoux[4] identified six types of health outcomes that are a consequence of young workers being exposed to hazards in the workplace:

  • Musculoskeletal symptoms
  • Respiratory
  • Allergy and toxicological problems
  • Mental health and well-being
  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Fatigue.

These problems are not unique to young workers, but what increases their vulnerability to specific risks is the stage they have reached in both their physical and mental development.

Young workers are also over represented in temporary, precarious and agency work, especially within the service sector, and contracts of this nature are often associated with little or no appropriate supervision or training. Therefore, it is important that every workplace should be viewed as posing a potential risk to young workers. During 2010, 19,906 young workers under the age of 18 years and 335,741 workers between the ages of 18-24 years had an accident that resulted in four or more days absence from work within the European Union (EU)-27 countries[5]. A total of 79 young workers under the age of 18 years were killed at work and there were an additional 250 fatalities amongst young workers aged 18-24 years[5].

Some industries are acknowledged as being more hazardous than others, such as agriculture, construction and maritime, and young workers employed by these industries will be particularly vulnerable. For instance, according to statistics provided by the British Safety Council[6], compared with older adults, young workers under the age of 19 years working in the agriculture and construction sectors have a higher than average risk of being killed or injured. There is also a link between occupational injuries and new tasks as a study of workers in container ports between 1980-2006 has found[7], with younger workers and those with little experience in handling containers and undertaking unfamiliar tasks more likely to suffer an occupational injury (see Prevention and control stratergies). The issue of young workers’ occupational health is complicated, not just because of the long latency of some occupational diseases such as work-related hearing loss, respiratory diseases etc., but also because of the implications for reproductive health for both male and female (New and expectant mothers|including expectant mothers) workers.

Specific risks, such as the risk of slips, trips and falls are found in any number of industries. However in the retail sector, which employs a large number of young workers, slips, trips and falls are typical of the types of risks faced by young workers. Other risks in this sector include those that involve moving vehicles in delivery areas, falling objects from pallets and shelving, manual handling of stock, and work related upper limb disorders from repetitive movements [8] (see, ergonomics article).

Risks to workers’ physical and mental health are often overlooked but compared with the rest of the workforce, young workers between the ages of 18-24 years, are 40% more likely to have a non-fatal accident at work and more likely to suffer from an occupational illness[9].

The reasons why young workers of both sexes are more vulnerable to certain occupational health problems and not others varies. In some cases, young workers may be vulnerable because of their age or size; they may still be growing and the implications for both developmental and reproductive health should not be underestimated. This is why workers under the age of 18 years are prohibited from working where they could be exposed to radiation. Examples of sectors where the occupational health of young workers may be especially at risk include hairdressing where 83% of new recruits are under the age of 26 years and 56% of the workforce is under 19 years of age. The main occupational health problems associated with this industry include skin problems such as contact dermatitis, asthma and musculoskeletal disorders[9]. Occupational health risks from either heat or cold exposure are commonly associated with outdoor work such as agriculture and construction. Sometimes the sheer number of young workers employed in an industry will increase the likelihood of it being classified as a high risk industry. The industries where young workers are most likely to be employed [10] and where they are at risk include:

  • Agriculture
  • Construction
  • Transport
  • Manufacture
  • Hairdressing
  • Hotel and catering
  • Retail

OSH risks amongst young workers may also increase because of the lifestyle choices that some young workers may choose to adopt including substance abuse (alcohol, drugs) which may impair their performance at work[9]. Employers also need to be aware that poor working conditions, poor sleep, heavy workloads and work-related stress can have the same effect on workplace performance as substance abuse. External factors can also contribute to work-related stress if the work involves contact with members of the public. In the service industry young workers are particularly vulnerable to third party violence and sexual harassment. The impact of verbal and physical assaults from members of the public on young workers should not be underestimated as they may not as yet have developed the necessary social skills to diffuse difficult situations [8]

Regardless of the work environment, it is always important to consider whether young workers have the appropriate knowledge for their particular jobs that will not only keep them safe in the present, but also in the future.


Preventative measures

There are a variety of preventative measures that can be taken to reduce the OSH risks to young workers[11]. These include:

  • Including awareness of OSH in vocational training and education to prepare young people for the world of work.
  • Communicating occupational safety and health risks to young workers(examples of this might be providing proper induction and/or mentoring and coaching from a more experienced worker).
  • Providing young workers with training in OSH and prevention targeted specifically to that group.

The role of educators

A ‘two prong approach’ that incorporates educating young people about OSH risk and prevention in the workplace is suggested as the best way to preventing occupational health and safety risks to young workers[11].

Young worker slide.jpg

Source: European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, p. 7, (2009)[11].

The model approach for prevention (see Figure 1) starts by examining what can be done to educate and inform young people before they enter the workplace and how these can be reinforced by policy and regulation. Education is seen as one of the most important preventative measures that can be undertaken, especially as it is not unusual for young people in full-time education to support themselves by working in part-time jobs. These jobs will tend to be unskilled, in some cases temporary, within the agriculture, catering and hospitality, construction and retail sectors so it is unlikely that the young worker will receive adequate instruction and training on OSH risks. By mainstreaming OSH into education at all levels,this enables young workers to be reached before they enter the labour market, and this approach is fully promoted by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) [12]. Mainstreaming OSH into education is also supported by trades unions and there are some interesting examples of interventions in Denmark, Spain and Greece[13]. These initiatives involved trade unions in the three countries developing an education programme that was tailored to their national situation, that they could take into schools and technical colleges. It was designed to inform young people about the OSH risks they were likely to face within the context of the workplace. In Germany, a slightly different approach was taken because they recognised that young workers were not always receiving appropriate OSH information from their employers about the serious risks posed from handling, using and storing dangerous substances (see also; Ventialtion and Isocyanates articles). In Essen, Duisburg and Dusseldorf, in Germany, 38,000 postcards were distributed in bars, cafes, restaurants and cultural institutions popular with young people to let them know about a website they could access to get the latest information and advice on hazardous substances[13].

In the United Kingdom, education is also viewed as a useful preventative measure. The British Council funds an entry level health and safety awareness qualification for all 14-19 year olds in full time education in the United Kingdom before they start work[14]. The latest figures provided for the period 2007/2008 suggests that 40% of all United Kingdom secondary schools were involved in helping their students achieve the qualification. Encouraging teachers to take OSH seriously in the school or college setting and acting as role models is also a good way of getting serious messages across to pupils and students about OSH. The most successful programmes have begun by ensuring that teachers are trained in OSH or in delivery of risk education and involving pupils in OSH in the school so they can gain a better understanding of the link between risk and context. Having a legal requirement to include OSH in the curriculum also helps drive the programmes forward[15].

The role of employers

Raising awareness of OSH once young workers enter employment can vary depending on the sector. It has been suggested that the focus of initiatives to prevent OSH risks has for too long been on young workers employed in ‘heavier’ manufacturing industries, construction and other traditional male jobs such as gas and electrical engineers; this is partly due to apprentice training programmes that are in place[11]. Initiatives need to include other sectors such as catering, hairdressing and call centres. Generally it is suggested that all prevention activities, whether these are risk assessment, prevention, training or general campaigns should consider the how key messages are communicated so they are relevant to the younger generations[11]. With specific reference to risk assessment, employers should ensure that this are carried out taking into account the vulnerability and specific characteristics of this group of workers and avoid generic risk assessment.

Employers have a key role to play in ensuring that they communicate OSH risks to young workers and that the appropriate preventative measures are put in place. EU-OSHA has developed a factsheet [9] that encourages employers to ensure that any occupational health programmes are both comprehensive and deal with organisational level factors as well as individual factors. For example, if an organisation provides hearing protection it is unlikely that the young worker will use it unless the organisation actively promotes its use through its policies and its supervision and leadership. Where employees are consulted about OSH and the appropriate preventative measures, they will be more likely to take workplace health initiatives seriously. In Canada, which has a particularly high level of work related injuries amongst its young workers; a study of workplace safety campaigns found that when young workers are actively involved in the decisions about OSH and are free to talk about any OSH concerns or issues, then the campaigns will have more of an impact on them, than if they are merely instructed [16].

Despite legislation that places a duty on employers to ensure the occupational safety and health of workers, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that 37% of 15-24 year olds had not received any legally required health and safety training [17]. To protect young workers, the TUC suggests that safety committees should have a separate agenda item covering the OSH requirements of young workers for discussion at each meeting. The TUC also suggests that young workers should not be given tasks where their lack of experience will put either them or their co-workers at risk. Supervision is also highlighted as important but it has to be the right type of supervision. Not only should supervisors have a good understanding of the risks and control measures for the work undertaken by the young worker, the supervisor should also have the competencies to be able to communicate and relate appropriately to. A basic first step during health and safety inductions, when the young worker starts work, is not to automatically assume that the young worker understands what they have to do to protect them.

Due to the lack of experience of young workers, supervisors, managers and team leaders have an important role to play in educating and encouraging young workers to adopt good OSH behaviours. Employers need to recognise that their supervisors need to be given the time to spend with their young workers so they can explain the importance of OSH and through example, by role modelling the correct OSH behaviours, instil in the young worker with the right attitudes towards their health and safety [18].

The role of union and non-union safety representatives

In some situations, young workers may be reluctant to consult their supervisors, managers or team leaders about OSH and this is where Union and non-union safety representatives can play an important role. Union and non-union safety representatives can also help promote preventative measures, and the TUC [19], suggests that safety representatives should ensure that young workers are protected from work-related upper limb disorders by:

  • Insisting on a workplace risk assessment
  • Identifying any part of the job where the risk factors for repetitive strain injury are present
  • Considering whether any workplace adjustments are required
  • Encourage young workers to take available work breaks to give their body a chance to recover
  • Educate young workers about the importance of screen breaks so they can take them without feeling guilty
  • Ask employers to rotate the work given to young workers to avoid prolonged repetitive movements
  • Carry out a body mapping session with the young workers and enter any symptoms in the work accident book

The role of health surveillance

The importance of health surveillance in the workplace is often overlooked in preference to safety programmes but health surveillance can play a major role in protecting young workers from occupational health risks, especially those that might effect their reproductive health. Health surveillance can also protect young workers by bringing their attention to the causes of, for example, hearing impairment and poor lung function in later life. In addition, where workplace health promotion programmes to support healthy lifestyles have been introduced and have been successful. [9] They have been identified as having five key elements:

  • Training and mentorship
  • Activities
  • Incentives for young workers
  • Information
  • Policy


OSH basics for young workers

There are a number of key messages that educators, employers and most importantly young people can take from the wealth of information that is available about OSH and young workers.

What educators should consider

Educators should consider how children and young people should be introduced to OSH while they are still at school and college so they can start to gain an awareness of how it applies to the world around them. There is resource material from the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), Wiseup2work [20] website which provides activities that can be used as part of classroom learning, as preparation for work experience opportunities. Educators can also explore how other methods for sharing information with children and young people can be used, especially new social media and smart phones. Young people respond particularly well to graphics and pictures instead of dense, text-based information. It is also important to put any OSH information into a meaningful context and teachers can take the lead by taking a proactive role in demonstrating responsibility for their own OSH, both as employees in their workplace and acting as role models for their students.

What employers should consider

Employers should involve the young worker in discussions of OSH risks and appropriate controls, asking questions to check if the young worker fully understands what is required. Employers should not assume that young workers will have sufficient knowledge and experience to protect themselves. This lack of experience or awareness should be reflected in risk assessments. Employers of temporary or agency staff should take particular care to check that each worker is aware of the risks and preventive measures. Young workers should receive appropriate OSH training and supervision; especially if they are introduced to new work tasks and it is important that supervisors are allocated enough time to check on their progress. Union or non-unionised safety representatives can also perform a useful role in helping young workers with OSH training so that they have someone they can go to if they do not feel able to talk to their employer or supervisor directly.

What young workers should consider

Young workers should also recognise that they also have a responsibility not just for their own OSH but for others working alongside them. If they have any concerns about their health and safety they should ask their supervisor. Young workers can also get advice from their safety representative or Trades Union representative.


References

  1. ILO - International Labour Organisation ‘Decent Work Indicators – Concepts and definitions,’ International Labour Organisation, First Version, 2012, pp.1-177. Available at: [1]
  2. EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Priority Groups. Young People – Introduction. Retrieved 4 December 2012, from: [2]
  3. EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Council Directive 94/33/EC of 22 June 1994 on the protection of young people at work. Available at: [3]
  4. Laberge, M., & Ledoux, E. ‘Occupational health and safety issues affecting young workers: A literature review’, Work. Vol. 39, 2011, pp. 215-232.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Eurostat European Commission (2013). Retrieved 18 February 2013 from: [4]
  6. British Safety Council. ‘Developing Risk Awareness Among Young People: An essential component in preparing young people for the world of work.’ Injury Prevention, 2010, Vol. 16, Suppl 1, A1-A289.
  7. Bruno, F., Curro, F., Reverberi, A. P., & Pastorino, R. ‘Port safety and the container revolution: A statistical study on human factor and occupational accidents over the long period.’ Safety Science, Vol. 48. No. 8. 2010, pp.980-990.
  8. 8.0 8.1 EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. ‘E-Fact: Hazards and Risks in the Retail Trade: Advice for Young workers.’ Available at: [5]
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. ‘Health promotion among young workers: A summary of good practices.’ Factsheet 101. Available at: [6]
  10. EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Young workers – Facts and figures: Luxembourg: Office for Offical Publications of the European Communities. 2007. Available at: [http:osha.europa.eu/en/publications/reports/7606507]
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. ‘Preventing risks to young workers: policy, programmes, and workplace practices.’ Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities. 2009. Available at: [7]
  12. EU-OSH - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work: OSH and education: start young – stay safe. Home page. Retrieved 21 February 2013 from: [8]
  13. 13.0 13.1 EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health, Promoting health and safety in European Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs), European Agency for Safety and Health at Work Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2005, Available at [9]
  14. Stone, N., ‘Developing Risk Awareness Among Young People: An Essential Component in Preparing Young People For the World of Work’, Injury Prevention, Vol.16, Supp 1, 2010, pp. A1-A289.
  15. EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health, ‘Training teachers to deliver risk education - Examples of mainstreaming OSH into teacher training programmes’, 2011, pp. 1-101. Available at: [10]
  16. Chin, P., DeLuca, C., Poth, C., Chadwick, I., Hutchinson, N., & Munby H. ‘Enabling youth to advocate for workplace safety.’ Safety Science, Vol.48. Issue 5. 2010, pp.570-589
  17. Trade Union Congress. ‘Young Workers - A guide for safety representatives.’ Trades Union Congress, October 2006, Available at: [11]
  18. EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, ‘Young Worker Safety – Advice for Supervisors.’ Fact Sheet 63. Available at: [12]
  19. Trade Union Congress. ‘Adjust the job!’ Hazards, No.73, 16 February 2001. Available at: [13]
  20. IOSH - Institution of Occupational Safety and Health. ‘Wiseup2work” an information and activity hub for the under 21s, teachers, training providers, youth workers and employers.’ Available at: [14]


Links for further reading

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER): Managing safety and health at work, European Risk Observatory Report, 2010. Available at: [15]

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Worker representation and consultation on health and safety: An analysis of the findings of the European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER), 2012. Available at: [16]

‘Study on a comprehensive overview on traineeship arrangements in Member States’, Final Synthesis Report, European Commission, Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, Luxembourg, 2012, pp. 1-856.

HSE - Health and Safety Executive, ‘Young People at work’. Available at: [17]

IOSH - Institution of Occupational Safety and Health. ‘Wiseup2work” an information and activity hub for the under 21s, teachers, training providers, youth workers and employers. The activities can be used as part of induction training, work experience preparation or classroom lessons. Available at: [18]