June is here and that means young workers are busy polishing up their resumes and beginning the hunt for summer employment. Landing a job is a milestone, marking one of the first steps towards independence.
But staying safe at work is another matter. And the excitement of the first job can turn into tragedy if the workplace is unsafe.
Young workers aged 15-24 are twice as likely as adults to be injured on the job, according to Indiana Department of Labour statistics for 2004. And a recent Vancouver Sun article cited WorkSafeBC as saying that young workers who suffer on-the-job injuries have risen 30 per cent over the past five years.
The reasons for the increased risk of injury for young workers were pinpointed in a recent study by James Westabu and J. Krister Lowe, researchers at Teacher’s College at Columbia University. In their study of 2,542 young workers between the ages of 12 and 21, working in diverse fields such as farming, construction, child care and retail in the US, the authors observe that psychological factors may contribute to more young workers getting injured on the job.
Westabu and Krister Lowe highlight the importance of social influences in keeping young workers safe and identify four groups of people integral to young worker safety and each has a role to play in keeping youngsters safe.
If young people perceive that the boss won’t let them take unnecessary risks, young workers are less likely to be injured. If supervisors require workers to adopt company safety procedures, they can reduce risk-taking on the part of young employees. The manager must be clear that risk taking will not be permitted, and can do that by emphasizing safety over speed of task completion, for example. Even young people who may be inclined to take risks will modify their behaviour if supervisors promote a safety-conscious climate. Research shows that supervisor concern for safety can predict an overall pro-safety work environment.
Besides making safety a general priority, supervisors can help younger workers stay safe with adequate training. Claiming that a young person is only on the job for a few months or only works part-time as a reason to short-change them on safety training is a recipe for disaster. Instead, giving clear instructions to youth that they are not permitted to take risks and providing them with ways to deal with risky situations when they arise is key.
For example, instructing young people to stop an activity that seems unsafe and find a supervisor to help them, or telling them to get their supervisor’s help if they are unclear about how to proceed with an apparently risky task, such as operating an unfamiliar machine, can help ensure safety.
The authors note in their study that younger staff may tend to match the level of risk-taking engaged in by their co-workers in order to gain acceptance. It is sometimes important to feel accepted quickly at work. The desire to belong may spur risky behaviours, like being afraid to ask questions or obtain help. The desire to prove oneself or appear competent even when inexperienced can result in injury. Co-workers need to be aware of the possibility of this need to be one of the gang and take young workers under their wing to inculcate safety mindedness and the willingness to ask for help.
Also, since supervisors are not always available, young staff may learn parts of the job from co-workers who may have different safety standards and levels of experience when performing tasks. Co-workers play a crucial role in modeling appropriate safety habits—wearing goggles, operating machinery according to the safety standard and modifying activity if stressed or fatigued are a few ways older staff can help younger people stay safe.
If young workers believe that their co-workers take risks on the job, they tend to be more willing to do unsafe things at work themselves and co-workers, according to the authors study, seem to have even more sway with younger staff than supervisors. Co-worker conduct is important to keeping summer employees healthy on the job.
The authors found that parents who take more risks themselves influence their children greatly. Youth are quite accurate in their descriptions of their parents’ attitudes towards workplace safety, their attitudes about risk taking and the degree to which parents take preventative measures to reduce risk. Parents model safe behaviour for their children early, so teaching kids to wear seatbelts and helmets, for instance, indicates a parental desire to take preventative measures to ensure safety.
Habits learned early can be carried into the workplace and questions around whether to wear safety equipment, for example, can be reduced when parents have taken pains to insist on using the proper equipment to prevent or reduce injury during a youth’s childhood.
4. Young Workers Themselves
Some adolescents and young adults are well known for their willingness to engage in high-risk activities, especially those with an element of physical danger. Even when youth know their parents caution against risky behaviour, they often rely more on their own beliefs about dangerous situations when making decisions about unsafe situations at work. And, the researchers point out that even just intending to engage in risks on the job can relate to injury rates.
It is beneficial to consider your own beliefs about risk taking and decide what your values are about safety before setting foot on a work site, where there may be many pressures to do unsafe things. If you’ve decided beforehand how far you will go, you are more likely to keep safe.
If you like taking risks, be sure to use the safety equipment provided or ask for the items you need. Be sure you know how to operate equipment and if you find yourself over your head, seek out a trusted co-worker. Or, better yet, go to your boss. Make sure you get safety training and if you seem to be left to your own devices when dealing with unsafe situations, stop the activity and think about the best next step. It could save your life.
It is important that the first jobs taken by young people are positive. Gains in confidence, independence and financial autonomy are the benefits of that first job. The downside is injury and disability for relatively inexperienced and young workers. Everyone from the youth themselves to co-workers, supervisors and parents have responsibility for what happens this summer to young people on the job.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.