Published April 2018
Safety and health at work: Why are youth at risk?
Modern labour markets are a tough place for young jobseekers. Many feel pressure to accept the first job offer they get, often without considering if the working conditions put their health and safety at risk.
This is a problem, since young workers suffer from injury and illness on the job at far higher rates than their adult counterparts.
Explore this InfoStory to learn more about occupational safety and health for young people.
Defining young workers
The United Nations defines “youth” as anyone between the ages of 15 and 24. By this definition, there are 541 million young workers in the world today, accounting for over 15% of the global labour force.
They include students who work in their spare time, apprentices, interns, young people who have finished or dropped out of compulsory education, young workers in family businesses, young employers and self-employed workers.
Injury and illness for young workers
Globally, 374 million workers suffered non-fatal occupational injuries in 2014. According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, young people in Europe are up to 40% more likely to suffer a work-related injury than older workers.
Why does it matter?
Occupational safety and health is a basic human right, but there is more to this.
The human cost
The high rate of injury among young people is of particular concern, as one accident can destroy a life and a lifetime of career opportunities, earnings potential and general well-being.
The economic cost
Poor occupational safety and health practices cost an estimated 4% of global Gross Domestic Product each year, almost 3 trillion in US dollars. While these estimates are based primarily on the economic cost to businesses and government, when a young worker is injured, years of productivity are lost along with the investment in education and training.
Risk factors for youth
The high level of global youth unemployment has led to high concentrations of young workers in informal, temporary and non-standard employment.
Such jobs are often not properly supervised and informal workers tend to lack representation and awareness of their rights at work.
Young people are more susceptible to social pressures, including the desire to fit in and be seen as competent and independent; this can drive risk-taking behaviour at work.
Young people may also avoid speaking up about workplace dangers for fear of being perceived as troublemakers or complainers.
Awareness of workplace safety is positively influenced by education. Young workers with higher levels of education have a better understanding of safety, are more compliant with safety procedures and suffer fewer accidents than workers with less education.
Lack of skills and training
Young people joining the workforce for the first time do not have the same skills and experience as older workers.
A worker’s risk of injury is four times greater during the first month in a new job than it is after just 12 months on the job.
Young workers – especially adolescents – are still developing physically.
This means they experience more extreme reactions to toxins and they also are more likely to injure themselves handling equipment and machinery designed for adults.
Factors such as gender, disability and migration status combine with age to increase the risk of occupational injuries.
Migrant workers, for example, have some of the highest work-related accident rates. More than 70% of migrants are under the age of 30.
The most dangerous sectors
This sector attracts high numbers of young workers in many developing countries and has one of the highest rates of occupational injury and illness.
This is due to the hazardous nature of the work, but also due to a lack of job training for a high number of inexperienced, seasonal and migrant workers.
The most dangerous sectors
This sector is a major employer of young people in developing regions.
Similar to the construction sector, agriculture is among the most hazardous sectors for workers of all ages, due to the nature of the work and the frequent lack of job training for the high number of low-skilled, seasonal and migrant workers.
Nearly half of all adolescents in hazardous child labour work in agriculture.
The most dangerous sectors
Many young workers transition directly from education to employment in manufacturing. Young workers comprise almost 10% of all workers in manufacturing in Africa and 20% in Eastern Europe and Central and Western Asia.
In many developed countries, it is the sector with the highest proportion of occupational accidents involving young workers.
How do we solve the problem?
Involving young people
Empowering young people to take action to protect themselves and their peers at work should be at the heart of strategies to improve the safety and health of young workers.
Youth OSH (occupational safety and health) champions can act as international spokespeople for better safety and health and bring much-needed creativity, energy and commitment to the table.
Major data gaps exist in our understanding of occupational injury and illness. Improving national systems for gathering data will allow targeted and evidence-based action.
Crucially, data analysis should take careful account of such factors as gender, age and economic sector.
Legislation and regulation
Laws, regulations and policies concerning the safety and health of young workers should not be limited to young people under the age of 18.
Expanding legal protections to cover workers in the informal economy is also an effective way to protect young workers.
Governments, employers, workers, and their organizations need to work together to achieve sustainable progress on this issue.
Young people need to be fully engaged by governments and the social partners. Networks for exchanging OSH (occupational safety and health) knowledge should be strengthened so that all parties are empowered to support each other towards holistic and positive change.
Mainstreaming in education
Young people should learn about safety and health in the workplace as an integral part of their education, before entering the workforce.
Young workers should receive job-specific occupational safety and health training in preparation for employment and at the outset of employment.
Advocacy and awareness
Raising public awareness is essential for solving the problem at the global scale. Real-world experiences are an effective way to educate young workers about occupational safety and health.
News and social media are essential platforms for increasing awareness and creating the demand for better workplace safety and health.
Young people in charge of their own future
Ensuring the safety of today’s generation of young workers is also an investment in the safety of future generations and a smart investment for businesses and society as a whole.
Young people understand the realities of their working lives better than anyone and their voices and ideas should be central to efforts to guarantee their safety and health at work.
Funding for this infostory was provided by the United States Department of Labor