Young workers – Risk, Safety and Injury
SafeWork Australia reports that one in five work injuries in Australia are incurred by
young people under the age of 25 years.
The cost of work-related injuries and illness to young workers in Australia is $12 billion per year.
On average, every 4 minutes and 24 seconds, a young person is injured in an Australian workplace (2013).
In NSW alone, 15 workers in the 15 to 25 years age group are injured every day (SafeWork NSW 2017).
Young workers are at greatest risk of injury in the first months of employment,
with injury risk reducing with tenure (Bena et al. and Morassaei et al. 2013).
Young Workers, Risk and WHS Obligations
While young people and young workers are not a homogeneous group and workplaces vary enormously the startling figures above highlight a very real injury risk to young workers.
It important to understand that young people typically have an approach to risk that is unlike that of any other age group. It is that approach that can contribute to the greater likelihood that they may be injured when working.
While young workers can bring energy, enthusiasm and new ideas to a workplace, they can also bring some specific behavioural challenges which, if unchecked, can contribute to workplace injuries and near misses.
The part of the brain responsible for making complex decisions (the pre-frontal cortex) is one of the last areas to fully develop in young adults. This means even though a young person could be aware that certain safety hazard exists they may not be able to fully grasp the related risks to themselves or fellow workers.
At the same time, the parts of the brain associated with sensation seeking and excitement (the limbic system) are in overdrive in young people which sometimes makes the appeal of danger attractive.
Given this, a developing brain tends to overuse the impulsive or ‘gut decisions’ area: oblivious to ‘think before you act’ or ‘common sense’ injunctions from supervisors or fellow workers.
It is critical that everyone in workplaces that employ young workers are aware of the factors that can influence a young person’s approach to risk. Only then will they satisfy their obligations under the WHS Act. Only then will a holistic workplace safety culture have any chance of being effective.
Young workers don’t have a lot of experience with workplace safety risks. It’s all new to them and their exposure to injury risk is at its highest in the first months of employment.
Often, they may imagine what might happen in a given situation without having had personal prior experience and rely on their best guess about what they need to do.
Young workers can feel self-conscious about their lack of experience and, wishing to make a good impression on their boss and fellow workers, be reluctant to admit to uncertainty.
“Teenage brains are not broken – they’re just still under construction.” (Giedd 2002)
Young people often look like adults, making is easy to think they are capable of tasks that are beyond them – both physically and emotionally.
The areas of the brain responsible for coordination continue to develop well into the 20s and this may impact on mistakes due to coordination lapses. Additionally, young people may have limited strength and stamina but, once again, may be reluctant to admit that.
Emotional maturity is also still developing in many young people and this can affect their decision-making at work, particularly in stressful situations. Given young workers have limited experience dealing with work related stress they can find it difficult to make good decisions when they feel emotional pressure.
Young people have different body clocks to older adults and children and their bodies produce melatonin (a sleep hormone) later at night than older adults do.
This means young people may find it hard to wind down for sleep early and tend to stay up later at night, an issue further exacerbated by the use of online devices at bedtime.
Given that growing bodies need extra sleep, it can be seriously challenging for them to get up in the
Sleep deprivation and fatigue can be a safety risk at work. Fatigue is increased
by long shifts, harsh work conditions, inadequate breaks and not enough recovery
time between shifts.
Communicating effectively plays a big role in workplace safety. When it comes to communicating with young people it can be difficult to know whether you’re being effective. This is because young people often communicate differently than older adults do.
On top of this, young people are often nervous about their new job and unfamiliar with workplace conventions and jargon. This explains why young people can be inclined not to speak up much at work.
The developing brain can make it difficult to work independently on tasks that require planning and
Research also tells us that young people have an even greater difficulty making decisions at times when they are feeling strong emotions such as stress, compared with times when they feel calm. Is it any wonder young people often struggle in their first months on the job?
While some stress is normal and can motivate us to try harder, too much stress can lead to serious
problems for some young people, including mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.
Around 1 in 16 young people aged 16-24 have depression and about 1 in 6 experience anxiety (beyondblue.org). Half of all mental health conditions we experience at some point in our lives have started by the age of 14 (Kessler 2005).
What can be done?
Too much reliance is often given to the injury prevention value of giving young workers safety information in the form of lectures, handouts or internet-delivered tick-box modules believing that providing access to education resources will alone compensate for the developmental vulnerabilities of young workers (Johnson & Jones, 2011).
Safety information, to be effective, should be complemented by a range of practical strategies to minimise young workers’ injury risk. Examples include:
- Allocate a mentor to influence a young worker develop positive attitudes and behaviours. Note that mentoring is NOT the same as hierarchical supervision!
- Catch young workers out doing something right and commend them accordingly.
- Gradually introduce tasks for a young worker from least risky to most risky over a period of months or even years. This gives young workers the opportunity to learn about the workplace while being exposed to low-level risk only.
- Be clear and specific in your instructions e.g. instead of saying “Don’t lift more than you’re capable of”, say “This box requires a two-person lift/This box can be lifted by a single person.”
- Make sure young workers take breaks.
- Instead of after-work drinks offer fun, alcohol-free opportunities to socialise.
- Include young worker safety counter-measures in your workplace’s induction and orientation materials and break induction activities into parts, delivered in short sessions.
- Give young workers specific WHS responsibilities to foster engagement and ownership of improved safety outcomes.
Employing Young Workers: Safety Comes First
Across a wide range of industries, employing young workers is routine but the particular needs of young workers are not always understood. Young people present safety challenges that are different from other worker age groups and employers and supervisors would benefit greatly by acknowledging that fact. Worldwide the workforce is getting younger and it is increasingly important that young worker injury risks are actively mitigated as part of a company’s work health and safety approach. Young workers can bring much to the workplace – enthusiasm, fresh perspectives and a native ease with the innovative functionalities of technology. They also bring a different level of safety risk due to their age, inexperience and lifestyle.
While employing young workers – especially in junior, entry-level positions – can help a company’s financial sustainability, that very sustainability could be jeopardised unless companies are proactive in managing the risk profile of young workers to prevent costly workplace incidents and the financial costs that can flow from such incidents.
What You Should Know About Statistics on Young Worker Injuries
Statistics on young worker injuries clearly show that young workers are more at risk of injury than workers of any other age group. Much of this can be chalked up to a lack of experience and maturity, which typically results in a young worker being less likely to identify risk much less manage it effectively. Work health and safety legislation places the onus on companies to do all they can to not only minimise but to eliminate near misses and injuries of young workers.
- Young workers between the ages of 16 and 25 account for approximately 16% of all work-related injuries in Australia. The fact is that young workers often don’t recognise unsafe situations. The reasons for this are often complex: a mixture of inexperience, immaturity and lifestyle. Further, as young workers in newly appointed junior positions, they often do not feel comfortable speaking up to their supervising workers about unsafe situations.
- Another major contributing factor to young worker injuries, is peer influence. Young people are more impressionable and more easily influenced to take chances than older, more experienced workers.
- Young workers often do not have the necessary knowledge or life skills to keep themselves safe in the workplace. Having supervising workers in place, trained in understanding and mentoring young people, is essential for any company committed to optimising a safe workplace culture.
What you Can Expect from Youthsafe Regarding Statistics on Young Worker Injuries
Companies employing young workers have a responsibility to make the work environment as safe as possible to avoid so-called workplace accidents. Admittedly, it is no easy task, as there are many factors to consider, when it comes to young people.
- We offer a range of services aimed at companies and supervising workers, encouraging them to see themselves as key influencers of young workers. We give them practical advice on how to increase their positive influence by giving them evidence-based insights into the common behaviours, drivers, and attitudes of young people.
- We invite companies to explore issues relevant to young workers and the promotion of their safety and, by extension, the safety of all workers.
- We show them how to use their positions of influence to effectively establish a culture of safety in the workplace among young and older workers alike by implementing best practice approaches, helpful procedures and related actions.
Youthsafe is a leading injury prevention charity active in promoting youth safety. We offer a range of youth injury prevention programs aimed to support young drivers and road users, young sportspeople and young workers. Contact us today for more information.
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