Teen task force seeks reform in workplace

08/02/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.

By JULIE MEHEGAN

Sun Statehouse Bureau

BOSTON Like thousands of teenagers, Matthew MacKay of Tewksbury holds down a part-time job at a restaurant.

But the 17-year-old has never received instruction on how to safely handle the kitchen implements.

His classmate, 16-year-old Catherine Kuzdzal, isn't sure how to safely lift the small children she teaches as a part-time ski instructor.

MacKay and Kuzdzal both students at Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Billerica say they are well trained on workplace safety at school, but fear possible injury on the job. As part of a statewide task force, they are urging changes to further protect young people in the workplace.

The Massachusetts Young Worker Task Force yesterday unveiled a report that offers recommendations for protecting the 77,000 teens who work in Massachusetts. The report calls on employers, schools and state leaders to focus on making the work environment safer for young workers.

The task force is made up of business, community, youth, labor and health representatives, and is co-chaired by David Wegman, M.D., director of the Department of Work Environment at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

"For our task force, the challenge was not whether teens should work, but rather how to assure that their jobs are safe and do not interfere with their education or their development," Wegman said yesterday.

According to the report, more than 600 cases of work-related injury are reported to the state each year for workers under the age of 18, while several thousand teens seek medical treatment for their injuries. Nationally, 200,000 teens under 18 are injured on the job each year.

Surveys indicate that up to half the working youth in Massachusetts have never received training about child labor laws or how to perform their jobs safely.

"They are sometimes asked to perform tasks for which they lack the size, the strength or experience," Wegman said. "As new workers they are often unfamiliar with workplace hazards, ways to avoid injuries, and their rights as workers."

Among the recommendations in the report is the creation of a new Center for Young Worker Safety, devoted to education and advocacy. If created, the new center may be housed at UMass Lowell, Wegman said. The report's other key recommendations include measures to:

Modify the work permit process to better protect teens.

Update the state's child labor laws and support better enforcement of existing laws.

Establish an inter-agency working group to better coordinate and strengthen government efforts.

Educate employers, teens, parents, and school personnel about workplace hazards and steps to protect teens at work.

Under existing Massachusetts law, employers in rare cases may face criminal action for violating child labor statutes, but are not subject to civil prosecution. When Adam Carey, a 16-year-old from Beverly, was killed after losing control of a golf cart while working at a country club in Salem, his employer paid only a small fine, said his mother, Maggie Carey, a member of the task force. At the time, state law forbade workers under 18 from operating any motor vehicle on the job.

There are currently two bills pending to enhance child protection in the workplace, both of which extend authority to the attorney general to prosecute violations civilly. Maggie Carey said yesterday that without such a provision in the law, employers have little incentive to meet their obligations.

"How many deaths or injuries have to happen before some action is taken?" Carey said.

Rep. Peter Larkin, a Pittsfield Democrat, authored one of the pending bills. Larkin's proposal would cut the number of hours teens may work per day and per week while school is in session, and ban them from certain jobs. The measure also increases penalties for violations.

Larkin said many employers that have traditionally relied on young workers oppose the changes. And he acknowledged that the state's fiscal crisis may discourage some leaders from investing resources in reform efforts. But increasing penalties for violations and granting the attorney general authority to pursue civil prosecutions don't require additional money, he said.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Thomas Reilly said he supports the recommended change to allow civil prosecution of violators.

Despite the potential hazards, Wegman said part-time jobs provide young people with income, teach workplace and social skills, independence and responsibility. Members of the task force said most employers don't set out to violate the laws, but are simply unaware of all of their responsibilities.

Matt Ranucci, 16, also a student at Shawsheen Tech, depends on managers at the grocery store where he works to keep him safe, since he has never received formal training on how to spot workplace hazards. He urged state leaders to adopt the report's recommendations.

"Even with the oversight of a conscientious employer, I encountered several hazardous situations at work which fortunately have resulted in only minor injuries or near-miss situations," Ranucci said. "One teenage work-related accident is one too many for the teen who becomes a statistic."