Teen work injuries in Mass. show only slight decline

State says some bosses flout rules for minors

By Deborah Kotz
Globe Staff / April 22, 2011

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While teen workplace injuries in Massachusetts have declined somewhat over the past decade, they still remain a major problem, according to a report released yesterday by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

From 2004 through 2008, three teens under age 18 were fatally injured on the job and more than 4,000 visited hospital emergency rooms for work-related injuries. The number of injured teens has fallen with rising unemployment rates, but the rate of injuries — nearly three teens for every 100 who have full-time jobs — has declined only slightly since 2000.

And it is still about twice the rate for older, more experienced workers.

The report was based on the health department’s “teens at work’’ project, which collects data from hospital emergency departments and workers’ compensation claims in the state to identify work-related injuries in teens.

“We’re trying to determine what type of injuries occur so we can prevent them in the future,’’ said John Auerbach, the state’s public health commissioner. “Sometimes, what’s required is more training; sometimes, educating employers; and sometimes, changing laws.’’

About 30 percent of teen injuries occur in retail jobs, and another 30 percent in hotel, restaurant, or food-service jobs — all places that typically hire younger workers.

What is troubling, though, is how some employers still flagrantly disregard the rules, authorities said. Despite a state law prohibiting most jobs for children under 14, nearly one-fifth of Massachusetts middle school students reported in 2009 that they held jobs other than baby-sitting or yard work, according to the report.

Teens whose injuries were documented in the Department of Public Health report had an assortment of injuries: a thumb cut by a meat slicer, shoulder strain from heavy lifting, a hand injury from a cracked plate in a dishwasher. One local teen, who asked not to be identified fearing retaliation from his boss, described going onto a highway to retrieve supermarket carts. His boss, who also declined to be identified, denied that teen employees do this.

“What we see in our interviews with injured teens is that they’re often doing exactly what their employers are asking them to do,’’ said Tish Davis, an epidemiologist who directs the state health agency’s occupational health surveillance program. “They want to prove themselves; they don’t want to look foolish by speaking up.’’

Federal law dictates that minors not be put in dangerous work situations. Updated regulations passed nine months ago prohibit those under 18 from engaging in such dangerous activities as using power-driven meat slicers, wood-working machines, or bakery equipment. They cannot work in coal mines, meat packing plants, or saw mills.

While running into traffic to fetch a supermarket cart is not on the list, “that employer has a problem if kids are being made to do that,’’ said John Chavez, Boston spokesman for the federal government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees child safety laws. “That’s a dangerous thing to be having kids doing.’’

Teen workers often are not aware of what they can do to remedy perilous work situations. That was a message sounded again and again during a three-day teen leadership conference this week sponsored by the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.

One teen participant, 16-year-old Jane Adams, won a poster design contest urging young workers — a la Upton Sinclair — to “speak up and speak out’’ if they see anything dangerous in their work environment. “We hope to get hundreds of employers to put the poster up to get the word out to teens,’’ Auerbach said.

But employers also need to get the message that they assume a greater responsibility for safety when they hire teens, officials said. “They need to take extra care to reduce hazards and train their supervisors to address concerns of teens,’’ said Davis.

Parents, too, should take an interest in their teens’ jobs and step in when necessary. “We interviewed a 15-year-old who was injured one night while working by herself at a fast-food restaurant,’’ Davis said. “I kept wondering, did her parents even know that that was in her job description, to work alone at night?’’

Deborah Kotz can be reached at