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Making Sure Your Teen's Job Is Safe

Teen Safety at Work

Your 13-year-old comes to you and asks permission to start babysitting so she can earn enough money for that new video game. Or maybe your 16-year-old wants to work at the local fast-food restaurant so he can save money for a car.

If you're like many parents, you probably think that a part-time job, whether after school, on weekends, or during the summer, is a good idea. After all, working teaches teens a sense of responsibility, helps them pay for their own expenses, and teaches them that money is something that's earned. So you might be inclined to say, "Sure, take the job."

But sometimes parents may not give much thought to the risks their teens can face while working. Here's how you and your teen can choose a safe part-time job that minimizes those risks.

Common Jobs for Teens

Lots of teens work, especially 15- to 17-year-olds. Many are employed in retail operations, including fast-food restaurants, grocery stores, and other shops. Service industries, including nursing homes, swimming pools, amusement parks, and moving companies, account for another large portion of teen labor. And a smaller number work in the agricultural industry. Other teens opt for entrepreneurial activities, such as babysitting, delivering newspapers, and dog walking.

Risks to Teens

Of course, almost all jobs have hidden safety hazards: falling off a ladder while reaching for a box on a high shelf, slipping on a newly mopped floor, or being bitten by an unruly pet are just a few risks your teen could encounter on the job or at the workplace.

Other job injuries have more recently become common, such as carpal tunnel syndrome (an overuse injury in the wrists) and other repetitive stress injuries (RSIs). They're mostly associated with computer work, but RSIs also can develop from scanning items as a supermarket checker.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in 2006:

  • 30 youths under age 18 died from work-related injuries
  • an estimated 52,600 work-related injuries and illnesses among teens 15 to 17 were treated in hospital emergency departments

And since only about one-third of work-related injuries are seen in emergency departments, that means that an estimated 157,000 teens sustain work-related injuries and illnesses each year.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the farming, forestry, and fishing industries are the most dangerous and account for the most fatal occupational injuries; the retail industry is the second most-hazardous; followed by the construction industry.

Transportation injuries on farms, highways, and industrial premises account for almost half of fatal occupational injuries among teens. Wholesale and retail trade and service industries account for the majority of on-the-job nonfatal injuries.

Depending on the industry they're working in, teens can be at risk for serious dangers, such as injuries from heavy machinery or illness from bacteria or toxic chemicals. Teen workers are generally believed to be at increased risk of occupational injury because of inexperience and limited training.

Starting the Job Hunt

If you and your teen agree about your teen looking for a job, plan to spend some time searching for one that's safe and enjoyable.

Talk about what your teen wants to do. If possible, your teen should be interested in the job, not just taking it for money. Someone interested in pursuing medicine in college, for example, might seek a job as a nursing home worker or at a hospital.

Try contacting the department of labor in your state. Among the things you can ask them: the number of hours teens can work, the hours of the day when they can work, and the types of jobs they shouldn't do. For example, in some states teens under age 16 aren't allowed to operate deli slicers or fryers in restaurants. And some teens under age 18 may not be allowed to work past 10 p.m. on school nights.

You also can get helpful information from the National Consumers League (NCL), a national organization that (among other things) works to monitor and fight child labor abuses.

Starting a Business

How do you monitor the safety of a teen who wants to start a business (or work independently, as in babysitting)? Check with the labor department anyway; this may help you and your teen establish some guidelines, like hours to work and what kind of businesses are OK.

For example, let's say your 16-year-old wants to run a window-washing business this summer, but the labor department in your state prohibits minors from taking jobs that involve climbing ladders. Even if you know your teen is mature and responsible, the laws are there to protect teens from getting hurt.

Before your teen starts a business, steer your child to the library or Internet for business and safety advice for young entrepreneurs. Your local hospital, police or fire department, Red Cross chapter, or YMCA/YWCA may have helpful information about first aid, CPR, and safety.

Before Your Teen Is Hired

To find out if a job is safe, talk to your teen and ask questions such as:

  • How did you find out about this job? If your teen got the tip from a trusted adult, for example, you might feel more comfortable with it than a job listed in the classifieds with an unknown company.
  • Do you know the people you're working for? It's one thing for your 14-year-old to babysit for your neighbors and friends. But if you don't know your teen's boss, you may want to set up an appointment to meet before your teen accepts the job.
  • How many hours will you work? What hours will you work (weekends, after school, school nights)? For the sake of grades and sleep, you and your teen should set limits.
  • What protection will you have? If your child is working inside someone else's home or cleaning up at a restaurant after hours, find out if there's a security system and lock, as well as easy access to a phone to call 911 and other emergency numbers.
  • Do you have the skills for this job? Age isn't always the key factor. A 13-year-old used to babysitting for younger siblings may be more qualified for such work than the 16-year-old who's an only child with no experience watching kids. And if your teen wants to be a lifeguard but isn't certified, you might steer him or her toward the snack bar instead.

Checking Out a Job Site

You might not have concerns if your teen is working around the neighborhood with people you know. But you might have questions if your child's takes a job where you don't know the people or the environment.

When possible, get references for jobs from the labor department and the Better Business Bureau. Make an appointment to meet with your teen's potential employer and take a quick tour of the work environment.

Ask questions, including:

  • What are the specific job responsibilities? Find out if your teen can (legally and physically) or should do what's expected.
  • What sort of training is offered? You should be satisfied that your child is properly trained to handle the job, is never asked to substitute in jobs for which he or she isn't trained, and that your teen's coworkers are also trained. Teens can also benefit from being trained in emergency procedures such as first aid, CPR, and burn treatment. Your teen should know to report any injury to a supervisor immediately — no matter how minor it seems — and to get proper treatment for it ASAP.
  • Who's supervising my child? In some work situations, teens' direct supervisors may not be much older than they are. So, an immediate boss may not know much more about the work or how to react in an emergency than your teen would.
  • What other potential dangers have been addressed? A spokesperson for the Children's Safety Network provided this good advice: "I know a pizza place that uses Caller ID to confirm the caller's identity, the address of the delivery, and that the order was really placed." These kinds of practices ensure that your teen is delivering to a legitimate customer and increase safety overall.
  • What about working late at night? Many older teens work in late-night establishments like diners, ice-cream shops, and all-night groceries. You and your child must discuss the pros and cons of such work. Ask serious questions of the employers: Who's working with my teen late at night? Is there always an adult there? What security measures are in place? And be sure to check with your local police precinct for further suggestions and information.

Keep Talking, Even After Payday

Don't stop talking after your teen has been hired. Discuss work regularly and get specifics on the workday (rather than just "it's fine"). For example, you can ask:

  • What was something interesting that happened at work today?
  • Are you still handling the original job or have your responsibilities expanded?
  • What are your new responsibilities?
  • What kind of training did you get before you took on this additional work?
  • Are you being paid more for the extra work? Why or why not?
  • Do you think anything about this job will help you in your career someday?

Talking to teens about their rights and experiences at work is a great way to keep communication flowing. Explain that there are laws to protect teens against sexual harassment and discrimination, and encourage your child to come to you with all work-related concerns, especially if anything "doesn't feel right."

Also make sure your son or daughter understands that with rights come responsibilities. Some employers get away with paying teens less than minimum wage by paying them "off the books" and telling them they won't have to pay taxes. But remind your teen that paying taxes is an important responsibility and a legal requirement. Also, paying Social Security tax is how workers earn the Social Security benefits they'll receive later.

And be aware of your teen's physical health and safety: Is he or she nodding off a lot? Are grades slipping? Does he or she seem stressed out? You, your teen, and perhaps your child's doctor can confer about maintaining a healthy balance between school, work, and other responsibilities.

By investing some time in research beforehand, your teen can have a fun, worthwhile, and safe job experience.

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: September 2014