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Strict Safety Requirements for Teen Workers

Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer, is just a few weeks away and many employers have started thinking about adding students to their workforce. Here are some issues to consider as those eager, money-hungry youngsters join your workplace.

Safety first
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) are on the bandwagon with the Youth Job Safety campaign. OSHA focuses heavily on the construction industry during the summertime, not only because construction activity is in full swing but also because more inexperienced people are employed in the industry during the summer. Although most rules on youth employment are fairly well known, there are tricky exceptions and restrictions, so review OSHA’s safety rules before putting those eager young hands to work.

In addition, regulations issued by the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division implementing the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) apply to all construction companies whose annual business volume exceeds $500,000 or to companies in existence before April 1, 1990, even if they do less than $500,000 in annual business. So what can you put kids to work doing?

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Construction work
The minimum age for construction work is 16, although 14- and 15-year-olds may be employed by construction companies doing office work in an office setting. (But that doesn’t mean working in an office trailer on a job site, even though they may be doing office work in the trailer.) Additionally, 14- and 15-year-olds may not operate any power-driven machinery at all, including lawn and garden equipment, so don’t get any ideas about putting your high-school clerk to work mowing grass when things slow down in the office.

Employees under 16 are also prohibited from working in any of 70 occupations that have been declared hazardous by the secretary of labor, including working with explosives, driving trucks or being helpers on trucks, and working in wrecking or demolition operations, roofing, or excavations. Some of those restrictions may seem obvious, but implementation is when problems can occur. For instance, employees younger than 18 can’t handle explosives, but they’re also prohibited from being employed on construction sites where explosives are stored or used, even if they’re otherwise employed there.

And although workers younger than 18 can’t be employed as drivers or helpers on any vehicle that uses public highways, there are limited exceptions for 17-year-olds if the vehicle they’re driving doesn’t weigh more than 6,000 pounds (gross vehicle weight), they drive only during daylight hours, and their driving is limited to a 30-mile radius of the workplace. But that’s not all. Even under those restrictions, a 17-year-old driver must have successfully completed a driver’s education course and have no record of moving violations at the time he’s hired.

There are other restrictions on the conditions under which a 17-year-old can drive, including a prohibition on making time-sensitive deliveries, transporting passengers, and exceeding the maximum number of trips allowed per day. The bottom line here is, be extremely careful if you hire a 17-year-old who might be driving.

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Operating machinery
What other restrictions might you run into when employing students? There are a number of restrictions on things that wouldn’t strike most of us as particularly dangerous activities. For instance, workers younger than 18 are prohibited from using battery-operated drills. They’re prohibited from operating power-driven woodworking equipment (e.g., saws and planers) and from cleaning that equipment, but they aren’t prohibited from moving material from one piece of equipment to another or placing it on a conveyor system or on another device feeding it into a machine.

Although most of you probably won’t be contemplating it, workers younger than 18 aren’t allowed to operate bulldozers, forklifts, or any power-driven hoisting machinery, including nonautomatic elevators. But there are exceptions here, too, since young workers can operate hoists that don’t exceed one-ton capacity and cherry pickers. Problems probably won’t arise because a 17-year-old is assigned to operate a Bobcat; the trouble starts if he’s asked to back it up or move it on the job site. Remember, “operate” means any use, not just operating a machine for construction activities.

Performing demolition, cleanup activities
What about the prohibition on kids working in wrecking and demolition? Can you employ teen workers to clean up the site afterward? No. Minors are prohibited from working at wrecking and demolition sites, and that includes performing cleanup and salvage work at the site.

How about roofing, if you ask the teen worker only to clean up the ground around the building? That’s prohibited as well. The prohibition on working in roofing includes all roofing operations, even if they’re performed solely on the ground. The prohibition on working in excavation operations isn’t as complete as the prohibition on roofing activities — minors are allowed to work in trenches that aren’t deeper than four feet at any point.

Even the restrictions have exceptions. A 16- or 17-year-old who’s in a recognized apprentice program is allowed to operate power-driven machinery and work in roofing and excavation. But the work must be performed under the direct supervision of a journeyman and must be a necessary part of the apprentice training to fall under this exception. There’s a similar exception for student learners who are enrolled in recognized vocational programs. Again, a journeyman supervisor or an experienced adult must work with student learners.

Possible penalties
Why is it important to pay attention to restrictions on employing young workers? You can be subject to a maximum $11,000 civil fine for each violation. “Each violation” means each time a minor violates one of the restrictions, so it’s possible for penalties to add up quickly if you employ a 17-year-old who performs more than one prohibited activity. There are also criminal sanctions for willful violations. All in all, there’s a lot more to employing teen workers than just saying, “You’re hired.”

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Why you should care
Summer jobs are a time-honored part of growing up. Employers benefit by having extra manpower when it’s needed and perhaps by finding someone who will develop an interest in their line of work. Young workers are also vigorous and eager to learn — and that’s one source of potential problems. Not only do teenagers already know everything there is to know about anything, but they’re eager to show off their vast knowledge. It’s important to curb their enthusiasm and be sure they don’t get you in trouble with the DOL or OSHA.

What should you do to avoid the summertime blues? Know and comply with the laws and regulations governing youth employment, assess your operations for injuries and illnesses that could be associated with certain tasks, train summer employees to recognize hazards and work in a safe manner, and routinely inspect your workplace and work processes to verify that your summer employees are working safely and continue to recognize the hazards involved in their jobs.

In addition, be sure your frontline supervisors understand the rules and know what they can and can’t ask their summer employees to do. Finally, use the resources available from OSHA and the DOL to make sure your summer is safe and profitable, not only for you but also for your summer employees.