This is the first in a three-part series about Corporate Social Responsibility and children's rights based on the Children's Rights and Business Principles.
Do you remember your first job? You were probably a teenager. You were probably both excited and nervous. You probably wanted very badly to be seen as something closer to an adult than the child you still were. And you probably didn't think that your job could hurt or kill you.
Young workers are more likely than adults to be injured on the job. In the EU (2003), 33,536 young workers were injured badly enough to lose more than 3 days of work and 25 died due to accidents at work. In Canada (2007), 48,000 young workers lost work time due to injury and 38 died as a result of accidents on the job. In the U.S. (2007), an estimated 146,000 youths were injured or became ill on the job; in 2008, 34 youth under 18 years of age died from work-related injuries.
Their injuries were caused by events like: contact with dangerous equipment, getting caught in or crushed by materials, falling, exposure to harmful substances, electrocution, vehicle accidents, and violent acts (shooting). Gruesome, huh? It could just as easily have happened to you.
Some of these kids likely received some training; others may have received none or only a cursory amount. Unfortunately, even the most rigorous training is not necessarily effective when it comes to youth. Why?
Just because they look like adults and talk like adults doesn't mean that they are just like adults. Young workers' bodies and brains are still developing and maturing. Some tasks, like heavy lifting, driving, operating machines and even working long hours, can be unsuitable for youth and may lead to injury. They are more vulnerable than adults to exposure to chemicals, noise and extreme temperatures.
What seems like an obvious hazard to an adult may not be so obvious to a young worker. They lack the job experience and general knowledge to identify safety issues. Youth are also less likely to report injuries and are often unaware of their rights, not speaking up when given unsafe assignments or inappropriate tasks, or when they experience bullying or harassment. They may not know how to respond appropriately and are likely to assume that when there's a problem, an adult will notice and take care of it. And, unfortunately, even when they do speak up some employers may not want to listen to the opinions of their young workers.
Youth are much more likely to take risks than adults. They may not comply with Health and Safety practices, like using protective equipment. They may also be more easily distracted, which could lead to injury due to inattention. Employers often assume that young workers 'get it' and they are subsequently left without adequate supervision while working. And at the end of their shift, employers generally do not assume responsibility for getting young workers home safely even when they work until after dark or in remote areas.
John Higgins was an ordinary teenager who loved playing basketball and had big plans for his future, but all that changed the day his back was broken in a workplace accident. He was only 16, it was his first job, and it turned his life upside down.
"A family friend helped me get the job at a recycling plant," says John. "Getting the job, I felt like a man. I was the definition of an eager young worker. If someone told me to do it, I'd do it. I didn't think about safety."
After working just one month, John was asked to drive a forklift. He didn't get any formal training to operate a forklift and didn't even know there was such a thing as a license for operating one. "Training was like a foreign word there," he says. "You learned by example or experience. There were things that seemed unsafe but I assumed it was just part of the job."
One Sunday, his inexperience led to an accident with the forklift. His back was broken and his kidney was crushed. If a co-worker hadn't heard his screams, the forklift would have killed John. He woke up three days later in hospital with 65 staples, three rods and six screws in his back, one less kidney, and paralyzed legs.
John spent four months in rehab undergoing intensive physiotherapy. Doctors said he would never walk normally again.
"I use a cane now to walk, or when going long distances, I'll use a wheelchair," he says. "There are so many things the average person my age takes for granted, like being able to go for a run or play basketball," says John. "There's nothing I do today where I don't have to think, 'Can I walk that far or stand up that long?'" He has strong words of warning for other young workers. "Make sure you know what kind of training you need," he cautions. "Know your rights, know what is required of you and what is required of your employer."
Because of a preventable workplace accident, John has had to rethink his future. But at least he has one to rethink. (Read the full story.)
Children matter. Young workers are just as valuable and worthy of respect as adult workers. The newly released Children's Rights and Business Principles asks businesses to respect the rights of young workers and provide them with safe working conditions.
So how does a business become a youth safety superstar? Here are 5 tips to get you started:
You can find some suggested steps for training young workers here.
A first job is a rite of passage. As employers, we must take responsibility for ensuring that our young workers come out of their first jobs alive.
Photo via Flickr Tran BC