The summer job is a rite of passage for most North American teenagers. No matter what the job, teen workers have much to learn about professionalism, bosses, co-workers, setting the alarm, ensuring timely transportation and – their favorite – managing their money. Handling safety matters is one more area of concern.

While some summer jobs – answering phones or keypunching data, for instance – carry little risk of injury, others are more dangerous. Consider, for instance, working around the hot grease of a fast food fryer. A summer job in construction also carries significant risk, which is why the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), for the second year in a row, has chosen construction for special emphasis in its annual Teen Summer Job Safety Campaign

This year, the focus is on residential construction. The residential construction market is far less unionized than other sectors, and this has implications for jobsite safety. Without the safeguards and safety training that come with union workplaces, residential construction work is among the most dangerous in the industry (see Residential Construction Presents Many Hazards). 

For the teen children of Laborers in particular, a summer job in construction is often highly prized. “It’s a proud tradition of Laborers that generations follow each other into the calling,” says LIUNA General Secretary Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Summer jobs are usually how they get started.”

Whatever the job, raising awareness about safety among younger, inexperienced workers is important. On the one hand, without practical knowledge of workplace dangers, teens may feel invincible, overconfident or dismissive of real risks. On the other hand, as inexperienced workers, they may feel reluctant to stand up to pressures from supervisors to do things that they do not fully understand and are risky. 

It is because of this special vulnerability that OSHA and state regulators restrict the employment opportunities of young people. Although state rules vary somewhat, in general, teens under 14 can babysit, deliver newspapers or work as actors or performers. After 14, they can work in an office, a grocery store, a retail store, a restaurant, a movie theater or an amusement park. At 16, they can work anywhere that is not hazardous; this excludes mining, logging, meatpacking, roofing, excavation and demolition as well as work with saws, explosives, radioactive materials and most power-driven machines. After 18, despite their relative inexperience as workers, teens are considered adults and can work anywhere they can find a job.

OSHA’s Youth 2 Work website is a useful tool for teens and their parents. This year, it highlights construction, farm work, restaurants, lifeguarding, driving and landscaping. A subsection, YouthRules!, supplies additional information for teens, parents, educators and employers. The site urges parents to investigate and discuss possible hazards with their teens and, if necessary, support them in reporting dangers to their managers. The National Young Worker Safety Resource Center and Young Worker Safety and Health (NIOSH) are two additional, good online resources. Many states also have websites that address teen worker safety.

“For most of us, our summer jobs were fantastic experiences,” says Sabitoni, recalling his own youth in a LIUNA family. “Yet, every parent is right to worry about possible dangers and make every effort to prepare their teenager to face the rigor and risks of summer work. You should talk to your kids about the dangers and emphasize that they should ask questions about work that seems unsafe or for which they feel unprepared. Let them know that you will support them if they encounter any serious problems.”

[Steve Clark]