Delivering newspapers. Pumping gas. Stocking supermarket shelves. Baking doughnuts. Cooking hamburgers. Running a cash register. Mowing lawns.
When children take on such work - whether after school, on weekends or in the summer - we applaud them for becoming self-reliant. Yet the popular jobs that allow kids to earn money for clothes, entertainment or college can also endanger their lives.
Some employers think teens know more about basic safety than most of them actually do - and some adolescents take more risks than adults. But more often, kids are hurt at work because they receive little or no job training, or are given tasks that either exceed their abilities or are forbidden by child-labor laws.
Many parents and most working teens are unaware of the risks posed by common jobs. Injuries range from cuts (opening cartons) and sprains (lifting heavy objects) to fractures (falling from vehicles), burns (touching hot fryers), eye loss (debris thrown by lawn mowers), poisoning (breathing gas or pesticide fumes) and amputated fingers, hands or limbs (by food slicers and car-wash equipment).
Deaths may be caused by electrocution (using ungrounded appliances on wet floors), falls (climbing ladders), crushing (by dough mixers of paper-box balers), vehicle accidents (making deliveries) and murder during robberies.
In short, work-related injuries and deaths are an under-reported, but significant threat to the 4.5 million U.S. children under 18 who work legally (and the estimated 1 million more who work illegally). Kids are more likely than adults to be hurt on the job. And, according to researchers with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, more than 100 children die each year from job-related causes.
The Risks of Late Hours
Jennifer Harbison of Austin, Texas, enjoyed her job at the frozenyogurt shop. She worked with her friend, Eliza Thomas, and liked the earnings. “There’s never enough money for a teenager,” recalls Jennifer’s mother, Barbara Suraci. Besides, she adds, “You really do want your children to work so they don’t think they just stretch out a hand and someone crosses it with green.”
One Friday night, Jennifer and Eliza, both 17, had to close up the yogurt shop at 11 p.m. “Closing up” usually includes counting and storing cash. Handling money makes a job “precipitously dangerous,” says Dorianne Beyer of the National Child Labor Committee.
The yogurt shop was one of the last stores open in the shopping mall that night. As Jennifer and Eliza finished work, Jennifer’s sister, Sarah, 15, and a friend, Amy Ayers, 13, joined them. One or more people then entered the shop, tied up the four girls, shot each in the head and set fire to the store.
Horrified by the 1991 murders, Austin residents responded vigorously. The yogurt company and others offered a reward. The police followed hundreds of leads. No arrests have been made, but the investigation continues. And in January 1994, the owners of the yogurt shop and the mall agreed to pay a $12 million settlement to the girls’ parents.
“It’ll never be finished for us,” says Suraci. “The girls’ rooms are empty. Our lives ended that day.”
In the fall of 1993, Benjamin Nodine, 15, of Red Creek, N.Y., spent a school holiday working at a fuelstorage company. Ben was changing a valve on a tank he believed to be empty. Suddenly propane gas spurted out, ignited on a nearby furnace and exploded. The boy suffered serious burns to his face, arms and back.
Even seemingly safe industries can be risky for kids. Supermarket stock clerks, for example, open cartons with box-cutters that are actually single-edged razor blades in holders. Since users seldom wear protective gloves, cuts to hands, wrists and arms are frequent and sometimes serious.
Balers that crush empty cartons pose another serious threat. Federal law forbids anyone under 18 to operate such equipment, yet younger workers are sometimes told to put cartons into balers that are shut off. That, too, is illegal because the baler can be activated by mistake. In 1991, more than 50 baler accidents were reported nationwide. At least one teenager - Michael Hucorne, 17, from East Stroudsburg, Penn. - was killed when he was pulled inside a baler.
Other machinery kids work with is also dangerous. Jesse Deaton, 15, was working at an Oklahoma ice plant when his jacket caught on a large, revolving auger inside an ice-storage bin. “It squeezed the life out of him,” says Eischen.
Power-driven dough mixers, food slicers, choppers, hot cooking surfaces and grease make foodpreparation jobs hazardous. A 16-year-old fast-food cook in Minnesota was seriously burned when a container of hot grease spilled on him. In New York, a girl, 17, lost several fingers in a bakery slicer. At her weekend job in an Oregon potato-processing plant, 16-year-old Roberta Cochell lost her right hand and two left-hand fingers when a giant auger she was cleaning caught her rubber glove, binding her in the machine.
Farm work can be extremely risky, too. Children are allowed to work on family farms at any age - and those as young as 10 may work on nonfamily farms in some situations. Accidents kill at least 300 kids a year, according to Dr. Kathleen Dunn of East Carolina University School of Medicine.
In fact, the risks are so great that Marilyn Adams of Earlham, Iowa, started Farm Safety 4 Just Kids after her own son, Keith, 11, was killed in a farm accident in 1986. Today, more than 1,800 members in 37 chapters are promoting awareness of the danger and encouraging the safety of children working on farms.
Newspaper deliver, also exempt from federal age and hour laws, often is done in predawn when children are easily hit by cars as they bicycle or walk their routes. Carriers also fall out of open trucks.
How to Safeguard Working Kids
Parental Vigilance can go a long way in protecting youngsters from these hazards.
Check out your child’s workplace. Although a teen may find your visit embarrassing, try to meet the employer as soon as possible to discuss work duties and conditions. Make sure an adult supervisor is present during work hours. If your teen has to cross an empty parking lot alone after work, you may want to make safer arrangements.
Make sure your child is properly trained and understands the need to use protective goggles, gloves and other gear when opening cartons, spraying paint or using pesticides.
Insist on proper security for kids handling money. Cash registers should have a panic button nearby to alert police. All retail employees should be trained in what to do during a robbery. It may help if only exact change or credit cards are accepted at night.
Do not allow teens to close up a store, gas station or restaurant alone. Even with adult supervision, your child could be at risk.
Teach your child how to negotiate a better schedule, reject risky duties or decline illegal work. This avoids complaints that “you’re treating me like a baby.” If those efforts fail, offer help in finding a safer job.
Talk with your child regularly about the job. If he or she comes home late, appears tired or loses interest in school, the employer may be requiring too many work hours
Contact state or federal labor departments for information on child-labor laws and to check an employer’s track record. Make sure any machinery your child works with is acceptable. Teens under 16, for example, are forbidden to use food slicers.
Demand better enforcement of child-labor laws. “The inspection system is weak.” says Jeffrey Newman, president of the National Child Labor Committee. “Child labor has not been a priority.” It’s up to us to change that by writing to state and federal legislators.