Teen workers 'need to know they have rights'

Having a job can be beneficial for teens, but they should be aware of Labor & Industries' restrictions on work hours and tasks.

Having an after-school job can sometimes be a learning experience on state and federal labor protections that should be in place for young workers. Dr. Debra Cherry, director of the UW Medicine Occupational and Environmental Medicine Residency, provides tips for teens and their families on how to navigate workplace safety issues. 

Recent on-the-job deaths of three U.S. teens show the need for young workers to know the limits on what they can and cannot do when working, and underscore the need for vigilance.

Teens “need to know they have rights,” said Cherry, a Harborview Medical Center physician who specializes in workplace injuries and illnesses. She is an associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine. 

A job can benefit teens by giving them the opportunity to learn life skills, gain responsibility and earn wages, Cherry said. Being employed also teaches teens how to get along with bosses and coworkers, and manage their own money.

But teenage workers also require job protections due to their young age. Cherry pointed out that there are legal restrictions on the hours that teens work and the tasks they do.

In Washington state, teen work hours are limited during the school year to enable them to focus on their studies. 

Teens also are not allowed to work around hazardous machinery or dangerous chemicals, or perform tasks from heights, such as on ladders or roofs.  They’re not permitted to use meat slicers or grinders and are not supposed to make deliveries that involve tight time schedules, such as pizza delivery, she said.

“So if they’re asked to do those things or work long hours, they should question that,” Cherry said.

She suggested that teens who have concerns about their rights and work assignments say to their boss, “I’m not really comfortable with this.” Or they can talk to coworkers or their parents, or contact the state Labor & Industries department for more information.

The on-the-job deaths of teens in June and July involved three 16-year-olds: one working in a poultry plant in Mississippi, one at a Wisconsin sawmill, and one in a landfill accident in Missouri.

Many teens have jobs in food service, which can include tasks that expose them to getting burned or falling on slippery floors, Cherry said.

“Where an adult might know how to take things in and out of an oven, a teen might have no idea,” she said. “Teens may lack common sense that employers assume they have” and need extra supervision and training for any jobs that entail any hazard, she added. 

Cherry related a conversation with one of her own teens about burns to his arm from working at a fast-food restaurant.

“He tried to shrug it off,” Cherry said. She suggested that he wear longer heatproof oven mitts and move more carefully when taking food from the oven.

While working as a lifeguard at an indoor pool, Cherry’s daughter once started to retrieve pool chemicals from a cabinet. Her supervisor knew that teens aren’t supposed to handle hazardous chemicals, and stopped her

“This makes a lot of sense,” Cherry said. “An accidental chlorine release indoors is much more dangerous than outdoors.”

Injuries and deaths tend to occur when regulations are ignored or not enforced, and when teens perform tasks that they shouldn’t, Cherry said

In Washington state, the guidelines for teen workers are fairly protective, she said. One problem is that sometimes existing protections don't apply for some reason, such as for volunteer work or a one-off job. 

She recalled the case of a teen who was asked to go to a building’s basement to rip out fiberglass insulation, but was not provided any protective gear.

“The teen ended up with a cough that lasted a long time,” she said.

Workplace risks increase among undocumented and migrant teens, she added, especially those involved in fruit harvesting.

Employers who hire teen workers whose first language is not English must provide safety training in the workers’ native language. Employers also must comply with limits on a teen’s working hours and not allow teens to work around machinery with moving parts or work at heights.

An estimated 80% of teenagers have held a job.  The most common jobs for teens are in grocery stores, fast food and agriculture.

Being employed teaches teens skills such as how to get along with bosses and coworkers, and manage their own money, Cherry noted.

With the school year beginning soon, the number of hours teens can work is reduced. Here are examples of Washington laws that govern non-agricultural jobs:  

* 14 to 15-year-olds can work no more than three hours a day during a school week or eight hours on Saturday and Sunday, for a maximum of 16 hours a week. 

* 16 to 17-year-olds can work no more than four hours a day during a school week or eight hours on Friday, Saturday and Sunday for a maximum of 20 hours during a school week.

* Work schedules are also regulated. For example, minors are prohibited from working during the hours that their neighborhood school is open, even if the teen is homeschooled or not enrolled in school.

Other examples of Washington state’s policies are available from the state Department of Labor and Industries:  

Teens at Work: Facts for Employers, Parents and Teens

The U.S. Department of Labor also has information on federal provisions for teen workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Written by Sharon Salyer

Media contact: Leila Gray, 206.475.9809, leilag@uw.edu



For details about UW Medicine, please visit http://uwmedicine.org/about.

Tags:occupational healthjob safety

UW Medicine