Protecting young workers from workplace hazards

By Worksafe NSW
Friday, 21 September, 2007

Employers should know that young workers must be protected from the risk of injury or illness arising from workplace hazards and pay special attention to the needs of young workers because they lack experience and may not be familiar with workplace procedures. They must provide them with information and training about work hazards and safe work practices that give consideration to their age and experience. Employers must also maintain safe equipment and a safe work environment.

Why do young workers need special attention?

Statistics show that over 1000 workers between 15 and 25 years old suffer permanent disability and over 8400 young workers are injured at work every year in NSW, most occurring in manufacturing and retail industries.

The five most common injuries to young workers are:

  1. Sprains and strains
  2. Open wounds
  3. Fractures
  4. Bruising and crushing
  5. Burns

The top five critical injuries to young workers are:

  1. Broken bones
  2. Severe loss of blood
  3. Head injuries
  4. Amputation
  5. Severe burns or scalds

The top five causes of injury to young workers are:

  1. Manual handling
  2. Slips, trips and falls
  3. Being hit by moving objects
  4. Falls from a height
  5. Hitting moving objects

New workers might work in construction, factory assembly lines or in an office. Each of these jobs and the many others available to students has its own particular hazards. It's important to know what these hazards are and to know what their rights and duties are when you meet them.

Some hazards can cause an immediate injury. For instance, young workers could slip and fall on a greasy floor, or get splashed by a chemical, such as sulphuric acid or ammonia, and get a burn. A fire or an explosion can cause serious injury or death. Burns, cuts, muscle strains and broken bones are acute injuries that can be felt as soon as the accident happens. Some hazards can cause young workers to become sick or injured over a period of time. For instance, if they work with certain hazardous chemicals, the damage that happens in their bodies may not be noticed right away.

Additionally, young workers could injure themselves lifting boxes, stocking shelves or repeating actions over and over. These chronic injuries sometimes are not noticed for years. Similarly, long-term exposure to noise can lead to hearing loss when older. Some minor injuries are often 'laughed off' as part of the job. They are not. Such an attitude is unacceptable. All risks for injury and illness need to be controlled.

To protect young workers, employers must know the range of hazards in their workplace, and they must apply the necessary controls to ensure that people are not injured or made ill because of their work.

Common workplace hazards include:

  • Manual handling (pushing, pulling, carrying, lifting)
  • Work environment (floor surfaces, noise, temperature, ventilation and access)
  • Machinery (powered and non-powered equipment)
  • Heat (burns and scalds)
  • Electricity (electrocution)
  • Hazardous substances (chemicals, fumes)
  • Biological waste
  • Skin-penetrating injuries (knife or syringe injuries)
  • Noise
  • Confined spaces

How can employers prevent young workers being injured at work?

Employers must give young workers the information they need to undertake their work safely. There is no substitute for thorough training and careful supervision until the new worker is competent to do the tasks required.

To effectively manage workplace hazards, employers need to work with employees to:

  • Identify all hazards in the workplace
  • Assess the potential for harm each hazard presents for workers and explore options for control
  • Control the hazards

For example, a young worker in a manufacturing environment may be asked to move some heavy crates. Without the correct training or procedures in place, the young worker could strain their back or shoulders, trip while carrying the crates or injure themselves or others if they drop the load. The employer should identify these potential hazards in moving the crates; assess the situation and available options for controlling these risks; and control the situation by providing a more effective solution to moving the load, ie, using a trolley, getting assistance from another employee or reducing the size and weight of the load to a more manageable level.

What specific responsibilities do employers have to their young workers?

The OHS Act is very clear about the need to protect people from injury or illness at work. Under this Act employers must:

  • Provide and maintain systems of work that are safe and without risk to health.
  • Arrange the safe use, handling, storage or transport of machinery, equipment and substances.
  • Provide the information, instruction, training and supervision necessary to ensure the health and safety of all workers.
  • Maintain the working environment and workers' facilities in a safe condition and without risks to health.

What if employers fail to meet their legal obligations to protect their young workers?

OHS legislation provides severe penalties for breaches of the Act. The maximum penalty under the Act is $875,000, but there are other costs as well including:

  • Hiring of replacement staff
  • Modifications to the workplace or work systems
  • Possible increases in workers' compensation premiums
  • Loss of productivity
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