Managing the health and safety of young workers

Due to their lack of maturity, experience and hazard awareness, young people may perceive risk differently to more practiced employees. There is also a raft of various regulatory instruments in place to limit young people’s exposure to specific physical, chemical and biological risks as they are at increased danger of harm from these. This article looks at the factors employers need to consider to instil safe behaviour among a young workforce.

A young person is defined in legislation as any person under the age of 18 who is not a child, ie someone who has not yet reached the minimum school leaving age of 16.
In terms of the health and safety of young workers, there are two primary considerations for employers when it comes to reviewing their risk assessment.

  1. How young people behave compared to more experienced workers.
  2. Preventing young person’s exposure to specific risks as they may be more vulnerable to harm.

Lack of training and experience

Before a young person starts work, the employer’s risk assessment must take into account a young person’s lack of experience, training and awareness of risk as well as their immaturity.

Risk assessments need not be overly burdensome or bureaucratic, eg in an office or shop environment, the organisation’s generic risk assessment is likely to be sufficient and the control measures in place are likely to be familiar to young persons. However, in higher-risk environments, consideration needs to be given to how young people may be influenced or pressured into unsafe work practices by older colleagues or peers, how they may be curious and act unpredictably despite any instructions or training they may have been given to the contrary or how they may also deliberately violate rules and procedures, eg in feeling pressure to get a task done, they take shortcuts.

Appropriate control measures in these cases include:

  • clear, simple information and instructions for each work task, the hazards present and control measures required
  • risk assessments including assessment or work-related stressors
  • remove imposed work/production targets for young people until they are able to reach the required standards
  • close supervision and/or job shadowing with a more experienced staff member
  • remove the need to work shifts, where possible, and limit unsociable hours.

Specific risks

In higher-risk environments, such as in assembly, industrial or construction sites, along with considerations of a young person’s lack of maturity and experience, specific risk factors also need to be reviewed and additional arrangements are likely to be required.

Exposure to physical hazards

Young persons have a physical immaturity and an increased risk of musculoskeletal damage as bones and supporting muscles are not fully developed until a person is approximately age 25. This means high levels or prolonged periods of exposure to vibration — particularly low-frequency whole-body vibration — should be avoided.

Young people may be less skilled in handling and moving techniques or in pacing their work tasks to match their capacity. Other jobs that require repetitive or forceful movements, particularly when in association with awkward posture and/or insufficient recovery time, should be given careful consideration. Manual handling of tools and equipment to assist with difficult handling tasks, introduction of task rotation and provision of sufficient rest breaks may be necessary.

Young people should not be permitted to use high-risk lifting machinery such as cranes, lifting accessories and construction site hoists, unless they have had the appropriate level of competence and training. As part of their training, they may use such equipment, providing they are adequately supervised. Adequate supervision should also be provided after training if a young person is considered not sufficiently mature.

The duty to carry out periodic, thorough examinations or inspections of lifting equipment or the planning and supervision of lifting operations, should not be placed on a young person but discharged by a competent adult employee.

Young persons should also not be permitted to use high-risk work equipment (such as abrasive wheels, circular saws, power presses and band saws), apart from during training which is adequately supervised.

The dose limit of ionising radiation should be set at a lower level than that for other employees — doses must not exceed 6mSv in any calendar year.

Exposure to chemical hazards

Many chemical agents can have adverse health effects on young people, although they are typically not considered to be at any greater risk than other employees and control measures currently in place to prevent employee exposure are likely to be sufficient for young people also. Safety data sheets will provide full details on specific agents.

However, a lack of perception of danger may prevent young people from recognising “invisible” or long-term health effects that may take many years to develop. For this reason, specific prohibitions are in place around agents such as lead and asbestos.

Young persons may not be involved with specific lead smelting and refining processes or in lead battery manufacturing process. Exposure to lead alkyls is particularly hazardous and its absorption into the body can produce a rapid toxic effect. Employers should ensure that adequate and proper safeguards are in force to protect the health of any young person employed on storage-tank cleaning work, which could potentially expose them to lead alkyls.

Younger people, if routinely exposed to asbestos fibres over time, are at greater risk of developing asbestos-related disease than older workers. This is due to the time it takes for the body to develop symptoms after exposure to asbestos. Similar concerns exist for exposure to silica dust in the construction industry leading to silicosis and other related lung diseases. Employers need to give information about the impact of these risks and the serious potential consequences of exposure to young people in their employment.

Exposure to biological hazards

The Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens recommends that young people do not handle animals infected with biological agents assigned to hazard group 4, ie those that cause severe human disease, pose a serious risk to employees, are likely to spread to the community and that have no effective prophylaxis or treatment available.

Duties of young persons

In turn, employers should inform young persons of their legal responsibilities towards the employer. This means following any safety arrangements implemented for their protection, including attending training sessions and complying with control measures, not acting in a manner that adversely affects their own health and safety and/or the health and safety of anyone else and to report any perceived or real shortcomings in protection levels to their employer.

In conclusion, a key component in managing the health and safety of young persons is the ongoing communication of safety messages and the guidance of mentors/supervisors to reinforce the true level of risk among young people and improving their perceptions of risk through training.

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