Many young workers die before first payday

Youthful exuberance and naivety can lead to tragic consequences

Year after year, young people suffer injuries in the workplace at a significantly higher rate than their older co-workers.

Youthful exuberance and naivety combines with a desire to impress and a fear of questioning authority, often with tragic consequences.

It’s widely agreed that workplace safety is the responsibility of everyone and there are indications that efforts to reduce the number of young workers’ injuries are enjoying some success. But the fact remains, young people in the workplace are being injured at an unacceptable level and employers need to be doing more to stop it.

Many young people come into the workplace and they lack both work and life experience, says Cathi Carr, a senior prevention program specialist with Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.

“They are going in with the assumption that whoever is in charge will be keeping them safe.”

She says young workers are about 25 per cent more likely to be injured on the job. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety figures show that about one in seven young people is injured on the job. A study from British Columbia’s Workers’ Compensation Board concluded that males, under age 25 are at the highest risk for a workplace injury. Their injury rate is about 50 per cent higher than the overall injury rate. One reason young women suffer fewer injuries is that males are often employed in higher risk occupations.

Carr says the number of young workers injured on the job is coming down but employers continue to make some basic mistakes after hiring a less experienced employee.

“If you get a young person in your workplace you can’t make assumptions,” she says.

It seems that many workplaces still aren’t doing enough proper training, including demonstrations about safe work practices, and close supervision for the first days of the new employee are essential.

“We continue to hear from focus groups of young people that they are not being trained,” she said. “In some places teens will tell us, ‘They say one thing and they do another. They tell us not to do one thing but they do it,’” she says.

“We have noticed that so many injuries and fatalities take place in the first few day of employment, which raises questions about supervision,” she says. Employers should institute a “buddy system” with buddies carefully selected for their experience and reliability.

Employers have to remember that young people are reluctant to ask questions because they don’t want to appear incompetent or foolish. They may even be worried about losing their jobs.

Young people simply haven’t developed enough to appreciate all of the dangers that exist in the workplace. Young people may appear mature and ready to do any job, but research has shown that a person’s cognitive development typically isn’t complete until well into the 20s, she says.

Young people can also be passive, tending to accept risks, so they have to be taught to be more assertive. If employers want to reduce the number of young people being hurt on the job they have to create a workplace environment where young employees feel comfortable asking questions.

Young people continue to suffer a disproportionate number of injuries because there is not a general cultural awareness of the problem.

Years ago problems like domestic violence or drinking or driving weren’t even on the radar screen but now the behaviours that lead to those problems are openly and widely pilloried. People need to feel the same way about the behaviours that lead to workplace accidents.

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