The Age of Experience: Safety concerns for new and young workers

By Tom O'Connor | Feb 15, 2023
Two construction workers looking up while holding a blueprint
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 352 workers  younger than 25 died from work-related injuries in 2020. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 352 workers  younger than 25 died from work-related injuries in 2020. Workers under 25 years old are 1½ times more likely to incur job-related injuries than older employees. Given the hazardous nature of electrical and construction work, these statistics are alarming. However, there are measures that employers can take to protect these individuals.

Why are the under-25s at greater risk?

There are several reasons why new and young workers are at a greater risk of being involved in a workplace incident. One is that these workers are inexperienced and are conducting unfamiliar tasks. Younger and newer workers are also less likely to ask questions or bring up concerns about hazardous situations for fear of rocking the boat. Additionally, these workers may underestimate hazardous situations or be unfamiliar with their rights and employer’s obligations.

According to the CDC’s Young Worker Safety and Health guide, “Limited or no prior work experience and a lack of safety training also contribute to high injury rates. Middle- and high-school workers may be at increased risk for injury since they may not have the strength or cognitive ability needed to perform certain job duties.”

Compounding the risk to new and young workers in the construction industry is the hazardous and physical nature of the work. Additionally, construction industry workers frequently change job sites. It often takes experience to recognize constantly changing hazards. The seasonal nature of the work also presents problems due to the high turnover.

Surprisingly, there are still many contractors that do not provide safety orientation or basic safety training for new employees. Lack of awareness is a major contributing factor to higher incident rates among new and young workers. The likelihood of a worker becoming hurt on the job is exponentially higher in the first year of employment.

According to Scott Schneider, director of occupational safety and health at the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America, “It’s less an issue on unionized sites, where people have a substantial amount of safety training in apprenticeship programs. They also, as apprentices, get mentored along the way. It’s still an issue in the sense you’re going to a different job site, and you may not be familiar with that job site.”

OSHA’s response

In recent years, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has implemented initiatives and launched campaigns to protect young and temporary workers. The agency believes that these workers have far too often not adequately received safety training.

OSHA’s Safe Work for Young Workers Guide outlines new workers’ rights: “All employees have the right to a safe workplace; receive safety and health training in a language that you understand; ask questions if you don’t understand instructions or if something seems unsafe; use and be trained on required safety gear, such as hard hats, goggles and ear plugs; exercise your workplace safety rights without retaliation or discrimination; file a confidential complaint with OSHA if you believe there is a serious hazard or that your employer is not following OSHA standards.”

Training is critical

In an effort to reduce the risk for new and young workers, safety orientation training is critical. Equally important is reinforcing that training to ensure workers have fully digested the material, know their rights and practice safe work habits. Keep in mind that people learn in different ways. Some absorb things more quickly by being told how to complete a task, while others learn better by being shown. Conducting toolbox talks is a good reinforcement.

Effective orientation programs should establish safety culture and include site-­specific hazards and how to handle them, hands-on training and any necessary PPE for the job and location. It should also include a risk assessment and encourage employees to identify and alert management of any safety hazards and report injuries and incidents. Other components of a good orientation program would inform employees of their rights and what to do in the event an emergency occurs.

Finally, mentorship programs can be helpful in reducing incidents among new and young employees. Such workers must be supervised closely and should never conduct a task they have not been trained to do. Workers should begin by conducting lower-risk tasks before graduating to higher-risk or more dangerous jobs.

shutterstock / Cineberg


About The Author

O’CONNOR is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm. Reach him at [email protected].

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