Campaign Seeks to Save
Teens From Work Injuries

By Bill Bole
American News Service

When Bobby Lee Cantley took a summer job two years ago, he was looking forward to earning some extra dollars and gaining work experience. The last thing he expected was to become a statistic, one of several thousand American teen-agers seriously injured on the job each year.

Bobby Lee, now 17, recalled his horrific workplace accident, which happened in July 1995, shortly after he began his job at a beef-processing plant in Cincinnati.

"I slipped on the floor and fell into the meat grinder. It cut off my arm," he said.

This summer, more than 3 million young people under 18 are expected to work in summer jobs, over a million more than during the school year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The government says 210,000 teen-agers get hurt on the job each year, a third of them winding up in hospital emergency rooms. Every week, at least one teen-ager on average dies as a result of a work-related injury.

To bring down these numbers, a diverse coalition has launched a nationwide education drive to publicize the hazards and promote ways to keep teens safe on the job. The campaign, "Work Safe This Summer," brings together parents, employers, pediatricians and the young workers themselves, including Bobby Lee, who is serving as an unpaid spokesman.

While some employers are instinctively wary of federal mandates, others have hopped on board.

Kmart Corporation will distribute 37 million shopping bags featuring the Work Safe This Summer logo and the slogan "Learn a Lesson for a Lifetime" along with information on how to learn more about teen work safety, said corporate affairs vice president Shawn Kahle.

Each of Kmart's 2,100 stores nationwide will also post "The Teen Workers' Bill of Rights," which includes this item: "I have the right to required safety clothing, equipment and training." The declaration, drafted by the Labor Department, also states that teen-agers under 18 are by law prohibited from certain tasks, such as using power tools and slicing machines.

Some companies have independently tried innovative ways of preventing injuries and fatalities among their teen-age workers.

--In Virginia, a chain of 31 pizza restaurants is posting signs offering a $100 reward to workers under 18 who report they have been asked to perform hazardous jobs, such as operating a machine that flattens dough. Several young employees asked by supervisors to do risky work have taken the reward, said Vicky Johoske, a spokeswoman for Blue Ridge-based Aces Inc., a franchisee of Little Caesar's. The supervisors were fired, she said.

--Wawa convenience stores in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware have issued different-colored smocks to workers under 18, so that supervisors will know who isn't allowed to operate the electric meat slicer, said Lori Bruce, spokeswoman for the 497-store chain based in Wawa, Pa.

--In Texas, Whataburger restaurants developed a computer tracking system to ensure that their 8,000 young workers in nine states aren't scheduled for too many hours or too late in the evening. Injuries and some fatalities have resulted from late-night robberies of retail stores, including fast-food outlets, according to government reports.

Behind all these efforts is an upswing in the number of teen-agers working summer jobs and during the school year, due partly to the growth of entry-level jobs in fast food and other retail sectors, according to labor analysts.

Constance U. Battle, M.D., director of the child development center at Howard University in Washington, says despite the possible risks, paid work is good for youths. "It helps young people improve their self-esteem and gives them role models in the workplace," said Battle, also a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Parents shouldn't be alarmed by their children working, Battle said, but they should be cautious and aware of what their child is becoming involved in. "They should know what kind of equipment they'll be using, and whether they'll get safety training," said Battle.

The 53,000-member pediatrics academy is a co-sponsor of the Work Safe effort, coordinated by the Labor Department. Other sponsors are the private nonprofit National Consumers League and government-related National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, both in Washington.

Government data indicate that rates of teen-age injury on the job have dipped slightly in the past few years. Nonetheless, the numbers remain "unacceptably high," said Linda Rosenstock, director of the national institute, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even with a plethora of legal restrictions -- for example, adolescents can't drive motor vehicles or do construction work -- they still get hurt at roughly the same rate as adults in the work force, said Rosenstock, a physician. Citing one explanation, she said, "They (teen-agers) are often trying to show they can do an adult's job, when they may not be ready or have the experience to do that."

Nearly six of every 100 workers between 14 and 16 years old require treatment in hospital emergency rooms due to job-related injuries, according to the national institute.

Most of these accidents are classified as preventable. There are simple and proven methods of avoiding them, according to health and safety analysts. Letting grease cool before draining it from deep fryers, for example, leads to fewer burns suffered by teen-age fast-food workers, said Dawn Castillo, a researcher with the national institute.

Government officials expect many work-related injuries this summer to result from violations of child labor laws, as was the case in the Bobby Lee Cantley incident, by all accounts.

"The young man was employed in violation of the restrictions on kids under 16. He was employed in a meat-processing plant, and that's prohibited," said John Fraser, acting administrator of the Labor Department's wage and hour division. "If he operated the power-driven equipment in the plant, then that would also have been a violation."

Fraser acknowledged the system of child labor protections failed to protect Bobby Lee. "And unfortunately, it doesn't work in other cases too," he said.

Now learning to use an artificial limb, Bobby Lee said he wants to let other teens know they need to "check out the safety hazards" at their jobs. "Hopefully, I'll get a job somewhere this summer," he said.

Bobby Lee's mother, Evelyn, trembles at the thought but said, "He still has to live his life. He has to say, 'I'm not going to let this keep me down.'" She said no matter where Bobby Lee works, she'll go there first and ask lots of questions.

Evelyn said she hopes other parents get the message. "If this could keep one kid from getting hurt, then we've accomplished something," she said.
Posted June 23, 1997

Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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