Parents of 12- to 14-year-olds see high benefits, low OHS risk, in children’s work

Despite high injury rates in young teens who work, their parents voice trust in safety of workplaces

Published: August 10, 2014

Although young teens who work get injured at higher rates than adults, the parents of very young workers don’t seem all that worried about common health and safety hazards on the job.

To a large extent, the sense of risk described by parents of 12- to 14-year-olds depends on whether their children work in odd jobs or at formal workplaces. In a study on the perception of health and safety risks among parents of young teens, Institute for Work & Health (IWH) Scientist Dr. Curtis Breslin found parents generally trusted their children’s employers when children work at fixed venues.

If their children work in a fixed workplace like a retail store or a fast-food restaurant, the parents tend to be somewhat unconcerned, says Breslin, who presented his findings at the annual meeting of IWH’s Scientific Advisory Committee. But if their children are out doing odd jobs like babysitting or delivering flyers, then the parents’ biggest worries are around kidnapping and assault—events that are very rare.

Part of that level of trust in the workplace seems to stem from the familiarity they had with the job, says Breslin. It might be that the parents have done that work themselves, or they have an older child who has done that work before.

Part of it also comes from the sense that the parents are in control of their children’s work situation, he adds. They’re confident they can pull their children out of a job if they perceive a hazard. And if their children are doing odd jobs, the parents will often assume the responsibility for implementing safety measures and providing supervision. They’ll buy cell phones for their children or drive them around on paper routes, for example.

Given the role parents play in managing work hazards for their young teens, we think a proactive effort to improve occupational health and safety among 12- to 14-year-olds should reach out to parents as a key audience, says Breslin.

He adds that it’s an audience that needs to be more informed about more common risks such as cuts and bruises, as well as strains and sprains. They also need to better understand who is actually responsible for health and safety under the law for the types of work arrangements common in this age group.

A dearth of data

Above all, Breslin recommends public agencies start gathering employment and health and safety data about this age group. Currently, no labour-market or health surveys in Canada routinely collect statistics on workers 14-years-old and younger, notes Breslin. And yet, according to a handful of studies across Canada, including a prior survey Breslin conducted in 2003, half or nearly half of children around that age have worked for pay at one time or another.

For example, in his 2003 school-based study, Breslin found 52.9 per cent of 12- to 14-year-olds in Ontario worked for pay at some point during the school year. In B.C., that number was 41.5 per cent. The survey showed boys in Ontario and B.C. tended to hold down jobs in more formal workplaces such as retail stores and food-service settings. Girls were more likely to work odd jobs such as babysitting.

Surprising injury rates

From that same survey, Breslin found between five and six per cent of young Ontario teens who worked said they were injured on the job badly enough that they needed to seek medical care. In B.C., that number was 3.5 per cent.

These injury rates are higher than those in the adult population, if you take into account the fact that, at this age, the teens are working only part-time, says Breslin.

There’s another reason we should pay attention to this group, beyond the injury rate statistics, he adds: Youth at this stage are only just starting to develop an understanding of health and safety risks. We’ve also seen how easily they internalize the message that certain hazards are ‘just part of the job.’ That’s why it’s even more important to influence their occupational health and safety attitudes from this moment in their lives.