A normal “rite of passage” for any young person is landing their first job. Work teaches critical skills such as how to provide for oneself and make plans for the future. At whatever age, however, being in the workplace means exposure to potential workplace hazards. Young workers are being hit hard in this regard, as the CDC recently reported that 352 US workers under the age of 25 died from work-related injuries in 2020. The rate of work-related injuries requiring emergency room visits was also higher in younger workers than their older peers, by a steep climb of 50%. This article will shed light on young workers’ perceptions of workplace health and safety and suggest measures to hopefully address and curb this higher rate of accidents among young workers.
An individual’s perception of workplace health and safety is affected by their level of experience. The combination of greater energy, enthusiasm, and peer and supervisor pressures, often leads young workers to take on hazardous tasks that require more time and preparation to execute safely. Additionally, in most cases, they do not have the experience built up to appropriately identify or be on alert for the hazards associated with assigned tasks. As a specific example of this, young people who cite working in a restaurant as their first work experience will regularly encounter the hazards inherent to such work, e.g.- slipping, lifting heavy objects, working with sharp tools and hot cooking equipment, etc. The sheer number of young people working in the restaurant industry (around 1.6 million in 2020) gives some insight into why roughly 42% of all youth workplace injuries involving days away from work occurred in the restaurant industry.
The jobs available for young workers are typically temporary, non-standard, and insufficiently supervised. As a result, health and safety considerations rank low amidst workplace priorities. This fact, alongside the probability of young workers having less knowledge of basic workers’ rights (the right to safety training and proper PPE, for instance) is extremely dangerous to workers and the industries they serve. Employers must provide adequate training to young workers, including those from temporary staffing agencies, and communicate safety in a way that resonates with the younger generation.
Young workers often find it difficult to ask questions or raise concerns with their superiors relating to workplace hazards. The strong desire to establish oneself in a new position can mean a hesitancy to speak up. In the world of EH&S, this translates as the under-reporting of near-misses and a decline in health and safety standards. When hazards and near-misses continue to take place without being reported and hazardous conditions remain unaddressed, injuries and/or illnesses are the inevitable result. Employers must recognize this behavior and encourage new team members to ask questions about unclear tasks. This can be successfully carried out by having the names and contact information for specific individuals who will be available to answer inquiries included in the onboarding for new hires. Another way to encourage clarity about tasks and responsibilities is to implement a buddy system where new young workers are paired with more experienced counterparts. By observing a mentor, new employees can more readily understand and adopt good health and safety practices.
While young workers often lack work experience and communication skills, they are thirsty for constructive feedback. A 2018 poll of 2000 US workers aged 13-42 revealed that 60% of those belonging to the Gen Z cohort (ages 13-23) desired regular feedback from supervisors and 40% wanted quick check-ins with their supervisor throughout the work day. Health and safety supervisors should recognize and capitalize on this inclination for quick feedback to introduce good housekeeping and other safety practices in young workers. Through consistent monitoring and frequent engagement, young workers are made more aware of their surroundings and take more precautions, thereby reducing workplace accidents.
Young workers face higher rates of workplace injuries compared to older workers. For one thing, a lack of experience will inhibit individuals from appropriately identifying hazards in the workplace. Additionally, a strong susceptibility to social pressures (as tends to be higher in young workers) makes communicating health and safety concerns more difficult. Despite these obstacles, with a senior peer giving constructive feedback, there is much potential for young workers to thrive. By reaching out through relatable safety training, mentorship, and consistent engagement, good safety practices can be effectively instilled.
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While the objectives of the RAG are varied, the primary public-facing outcome will be available through engaging and practical content found on the SafetyStratus resource pages. Various articles, papers, and other valuable resources will be produced and shared as part of an ongoing effort to cultivate a robust community. Ultimately, the SafetyStratus RAG will expand to have a broader reach and provide opportunities for more inclusion by all interested EHS professionals in a collaborative community environment.
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