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Work & Careers | ON THE JOB / STUART SILVERSTEIN

Check Out the Work Site to Make Sure Teen's Summer Job Is Safe

June 22, 1997|STUART SILVERSTEIN

While working a night shift at a McDonald's restaurant in December, 17-year-old Melanie Boncato of Vallejo, Calif., was murdered in a shooting spree that also left two of her young crew mates wounded.

Two summers ago, when Bobby Cantley was 15 and still new to his job at a meat-processing plant, the Cincinnati teenager slipped and became snared on a meat grinder that quickly devoured his right hand and forearm.

And just this month, in a case still under investigation, a 17-year-old employed at a lumber yard in Anaheim lost three fingers when his left hand was accidentally tugged into the blade of a buzzing table saw.

At a time when American teenagers are flocking to the labor market in pursuit of summer jobs, workplace safety experts say too few are paying enough attention to the potential hazards.

Every year, these experts say, young people are hurt or even killed at work because of their inexperience and recklessness--along with the shoddy safety practices of many employers.

On top of that, workplace authorities caution that young people often are cheated out of overtime pay and subjected to sexual harassment and other labor law abuses. All told, they say, the valuable work experience that many youths are seeking too often turns into a nightmare.

To attack those problems, the Labor Department for the second year in a row is leading a safety campaign called "Work Safe This Summer." The aim is to alert teenagers, parents and employers to potential hazards.

A major problem is that young workers, even when they spot trouble on the job, often are reluctant to point it out to their bosses. Even more than adult workers, "they feel they can just be replaced by another teenager if they speak up, or that it's not their prerogative to speak up," said Marianne Brown, director of UCLA's Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program.

As a result, many safety advocates urge parents to talk with their teenagers about such problems and investigate the job sites themselves--even at the risk of antagonizing their children.

Evelyn Cantley, whose son Bobby is still undergoing therapy two years after his 1995 accident at the meat-processing plant, said she wasn't worried when he started the job. Ordinarily, she said, a safety problem "isn't something you foresee. You tell your kids you have to be in the work force to make something of yourself."

Today, though, she urges parents to "check what your children will be doing . . . and see if they [the employers] teach any kind of safety program."

What else should teenagers and parents investigate? If you're considering a job in retailing, authorities say, check out the crime patterns in the neighborhood. The local police department should be able to provide the information.

In addition, look over the equipment at the work site. Every year, employers are caught violating federal and state child labor laws intended to prevent workers under the age of 18 from operating such devices as meat slicers, power saws and paper balers.

Authorities also urge teenagers to ask their bosses about what procedures should be followed in the event of an emergency such as a fire, crime, power failure or equipment breakdown. Also, they should know where the fire exits are and make sure they aren't blocked.

Employers apparently need to be prodded. Experts looking into these issues "hear over and over that kids aren't getting safety and health training," said Dawn Castillo, a research epidemiologist with National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Although the available figures aren't definitive, experts say they suggest that teenagers suffer higher injury rates than older workers. One widely quoted statistic: During the 12 months ended in September, according to federal estimates, 70,091 workers under age 18 reported injuries requiring emergency medical treatment. Nearly 70 workers in the same age category have died on the job annually in recent years.

Other federal research shows that adults suffer a higher death rate--six fatalities for every 100,000 full-time workers--but that may be due to the greater concentration of adults in the most hazardous industries, such as construction and mining.

For more information about the "Work Safe This Summer" campaign, call (800) 959-3652. For material on workplace safety for teenagers on the World Wide Web, visit http://www.dol.gov/dol/teensafety.htm. You can also contact the local wage and hour division office of the Labor Department. In Los Angeles, the number is (213) 894-6375, Ext. 230.

Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein can be reached by phone at (213) 237-7887 or by e-mail at stuart.silverstein@latimes.com

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