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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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Health and Safety Statistics for 2022-2023

HSE publishes a range of statistics relating to health and safety in Great Britain. Using a variety of data sources, including surveys and surveillance schemes, they provide statistics on:

  • Work-related ill health and disease
  • Workplace injury
  • Working days lost and costs to Britain as a result of health and safety incidents
  • Working conditions and management of health and safety in the workplace

The HSE team who produce and disseminate the statistics are all members of the Government Statistical Service. Their products and systems are audited by the UK Statistics Authority and have been designated with the National Statistics quality standard.

Contact us if you require health and safety advice.



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Decrease health risks with regular workplace exposure monitoring

If you work in an industry that is prone to regular exposure to a variety of harmful substances such as chemicals, fumes, dusts and fibres, you are required to comply with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations to provide safe working environments for your employees.

A recent case study between The Allergen Monitoring Service at HSE’s Science and Research Centre and the University of Manchester looked into Shellfish processing: turning ‘waste’ into ‘resource’. Atmospheric monitoring amongst shellfish processors suggest that significant allergen exposure occurs in that sector.

While there may be good agricultural reasons to increase significantly the amount of ground shell in compost, the grinding of such shells to a fine material may itself be a higher-risk activity.

They were asked to quantify tropomyosin (TM) in an agricultural compost containing added ground, untreated shell waste from seafood processing. Tropomyosin is a known allergen found in the edible parts of certain shellfish; respiratory exposure to TM can cause allergic sensitisation, respiratory symptoms and occupational asthma.

Some 50-85% of processed shellfish is ‘waste’; estimated as 100,000 tonnes per annum. The agricultural sector has been looking at various ways of turning this ‘waste’ – expensive to send to landfill – into a ‘resource’ with value.

The case study identifies one route that has been tried, but where there is the possibility that allergen exposure is shifted to a wider worker population.

The work continues: an HSE-funded research project, led by UoM, is currently underway investigating symptoms and occupational exposure to seafood allergens.

Common hazardous substances in the workplace

Many industrial, agricultural and medical organisations use hazardous substances. The degree of hazard depends on the concentration of the chemical.

Exposure to chemicals commonly used in workplaces can lead to a variety of short- and long-term health effects such as poisoning, skin rashes and disorders of the lung, kidney and liver.

Common hazardous substances in the workplace include: 

  • acids
  • caustic substances
  • disinfectants
  • glues
  • heavy metals, including mercury, lead, cadmium and aluminium
  • paint
  • pesticides
  • petroleum products
  • solvents.

Possible side effects of exposure to hazardous substances

Health effects depend on the type of hazardous substance and the level of exposure (concentration and duration). A hazardous substance can be inhaled, splashed onto the skin or eyes, or swallowed. Some of the possible health effects can include:

  • poisoning
  • nausea and vomiting
  • headache
  • skin rashes, such as dermatitis
  • birth defects
  • disorders of the lung, kidney or liver
  • nervous system disorders.

The importance of occupational exposure monitoring

Deterioration of controls could lead to serious health risks

  • Producing data to implement remedial actions effectively
  • Checking the effectiveness of your control measures
  • Ensuring workplace exposure limits are not exceeded
  • Identifying health surveillance needs

Reducing exposure to hazardous substances

Suggestions on reducing exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace include: 

  • where possible, perform the task without using hazardous substances
  • where possible, substitute hazardous substances with less hazardous alternatives (for example, use a detergent in place of a chlorinated solvent for cleaning)
  • isolate hazardous substances in separate storage areas
  • purge or ventilate storage areas separately from the rest of the workplace
  • thoroughly train employees in handling and safety procedures
  • provide personal protection equipment such as respirators, gloves and goggles
  • regularly monitor the workplace with appropriate equipment to track the degree of hazardous substance in the air or environment
  • regularly consult with employees to maintain and improve existing safety and handling practices.

The law requires organisations to adequately control exposure to materials in the workplace that cause ill health. This is the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH). Harmful substances include any materials or substances used or created at work that could harm your health.

Safety First’s occupational exposure monitoring

Exposure monitoring is needed for work with harmful substances, such as asbestos and lead may also be required as part of the COSHH risk assessments.

Our specialist team is highly qualified in the different methods of monitoring exposure. No matter how complex the issue, Safety First can find the right sampling strategy for you.

Safety First is experienced in delivering a complete range of occupational exposure monitoring services to provide you with confirmation that your control measures are adequate and workplace exposure limits are not exceeded.

Guest Post Will Dooley

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World Day for Safety and Health at Work 2023

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When an Inspector Calls

Presentation from February 2023 HSE

New company Powerpoint (