Exposure to work hazards and a frenetic job pace increases the likelihood of injury among adolescent and young adult workers, a new systematic review suggests.
Work setting also appears to play a role in predicting the risk of injury, with food service and construction industry jobs topping the list of hazardous employment in this age group.
"These studies provide sufficient evidence that the type of work setting, in particular restaurant work and manual labor jobs, was independently associated with work injury," said lead author F. Curtis Breslin, Ph.D., a scientist at the Institute for Work & Health in Toronto.
Breslin and his colleagues analyzed nine studies published between 1997 and 2005 that examined nonfatal injuries among 12- to 24-year-old workers.
The review focused only on youth performing paid nonagricultural jobs, such as those in the retail, food service or construction industries. The review also included self-employed teens, such as those performing babysitting or yard work.
Through telephone and written questionnaires, the workers reported characteristics of their employment and the type and severity of any on-the-job injuries they experienced.
Six studies took place in the United States and three were conducted in Canada and Australia.
Previous research had indicated that young male workers sustain injuries at about twice the rate of female workers. However, although six review studies compared injuries between the sexes, only one found that young males had a higher risk for injury, after taking into account work setting, on-the-job hazards and work hours.
"We found that when males and females are working similar jobs, they have a similar risk for work injury," Breslin said. "Even though you have males having higher injury rates, it seems to be attributable to them being in more dangerous jobs like construction," he said, not to factors specifically associated with gender.
Minority status appeared to be a significant predictor of increased injury risk, after taking work setting and work hours into account. In one study, the prevalence of work injury among Hispanic, black and other minorities was 67 percent higher than among young white workers. In another, the prevalence of on-the-job injury was 60 percent higher in Hispanic teens, compared to white teens.
"We didn't necessarily expect that [finding] going into it," Breslin said. "It seems to be more the job they're doing, not the characteristics of the kids themselves" that affects injury risk, Breslin said.
"This finding raises more questions than it answers," said Carol Runyan, Ph.D., director of the Injury Prevention Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"I would want to know more about whether there are differences in the types of environments in which minority versus majority workers are employed, [such as] environmental safety factors, differences in training or supervision, safety of neighborhoods and risk of assault at work," she said.
Runyan suggested that for some Hispanic workers, there may also be language barriers between workers and supervisors that could impinge on the success of training and supervision practices associated with maintaining safe work practices.
The review results also showed that the frequency and number of on-the-job hazards was significantly associated with teens' risk of injury. Common on-the-job hazards included using knives, climbing ladders or scaffolding and operating fryer machines, grills and ovens.
Unsurprisingly, the more hazards workers were exposed to, the greater their likelihood of injury.
A consistently increased risk of injury also existed among youth who reported feeling overloaded or pressured to maintain a certain pace at work.
Breslin said that part of the problem may lie in the difference in social norms in the workplace versus schools and home environments. Parents and educators may teach work safety education techniques that aren't necessarily being used on the job, he said.
In 2004, almost 180,000 U.S. teens were severely injured at work. Between 15 percent and 26 percent of injured teen workers report permanent health problems as the result of on-the-job injuries.
"I think it is critically important that parents talk with their children about what they are doing at work, including issues of supervision and training and the kinds of tasks and equipment they are involved with," Runyan said.
Runyan also suggested that parents meet the supervisors of their children to let them know they are aware of the work environment and to try to determine if the supervisor is managing them in a responsible way.