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ECO-SAFETY FOR TEENS AT WORK

By high school graduation, 80% of young people between the ages of 15 and 18 will have held at least one job. Unfortunately, their injury rate is nearly double that of adults. Most on-the-job injuries for teens involve falls, burns and other accidents. However, they can also be harmed by workplace chemicals.

Scientists are becoming concerned that chemical exposures during adolescence, a period of rapid growth and the development of reproductive organs, might contribute to cancers or reproductive disorders later in life. Adolescent immune systems may be more vulnerable, too.

"There has been lots of attention to young children and in utero exposures showing that development can be affected by certain chemicals. [But] researchers are only now starting to look at adolescents, both in terms of environmental and occupational health," says Dawn Castillo, leader of the child labor working team at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

"There's increasing concern about occupational asthma and cleaning agents, and many adolescents work where cleaners are used," adds Letitia Davis, Sc.D., director of the Occupational Health Surveillance Program at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. A May 1999 study in Lancet found that 5-10% of the young adults studied suffered from occupational asthma. Those at highest risk were cleaners, painters and agricultural workers.

Fifty percent of working youth do some cleaning on the job. Industrial-strength cleaners often contain chemicals and acids that require protective equipment. In 1990, a 15-year-old worker in Chicago was severely burned by hydrofluoric acid while cleaning a truck. Another adolescent working as a hospital dietary aide in Massachusetts splashed cleaning solution into her eye while washing pans, resulting in temporary blindness. On site visits in Massachusetts, industrial hygienists found a number of teenagers exposed to lead in plumbing jobs and when scraping paint from walls. Protective equipment was not provided in any of these cases.

In 1997, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found than 1,000 adolescents were unable to work because of on-the-job exposure to chemicals. This figure probably understates the actual number affected, according to "Protecting Youth at Work," a 1998 report by the National Research Council. That's because some work-related health problems, such as dermatitis and asthma, may not be reported, and reactions to chemicals may be confused with other illnesses. Pesticide-related illnesses often resemble the flu, and other chemical exposures may induce fatigue, headache, nausea and dizziness -- easily blamed on something else.

What you can do

  • Ask your child about the type of tasks he or she does at work; whether chemicals are involved; and whether protective equipment, such as eyewear, is required and fits properly.

  • Make sure your adolescent is not overworked. Fatigue increases the likelihood of an accident.

  • Call your state department of labor or attorney general to find out about child labor laws, which limit the hours adolescents can work and prohibit them from working in certain hazardous occupations.

  • If your child becomes sick after starting a job or is injured there, let the doctor know what some of the exposures might be.

Resources

  • NIOSH has factsheets on child safety and health.

  • U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division enforces federal child labor laws (local number listed under Department of Labor in the blue pages of your telephone book). For information on adolescent worker safety, 800/959-3652,

Written by: Aisha Ikramuddin


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