Introduction: Teens continue to get killed and hurt at work

[Section 1 of the “Five Most Dangerous Jobs for Teens” Report 2016]

Nearly 5,000 workers die on the job each year—each day, an average of 13 workers are killed on the job—some of those workers are teenagers. Each of those deaths are torture for the friends and family of the child worker.

Thousands of children are hurt on the job each year. Many parents don’t think about their children getting hurt at work, but according to the Children’s Safety network, about every 9 minutes, a U.S. teen is hurt on the job.

In a typical year, 20-30 children die on the job in the U.S. Twenty years ago, that number was over 70 per year. In 2012, 29 children died while working. In 2013, that number fell sharply to 14, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The National Consumers League (NCL) was curious—and hopeful—to see if that drastic drop in fatalities would continue, but sadly, it did not.

According to the BLS data for 2014, the most recent data that is available, 21 young workers under the age of 18 died in the U.S.—a 50 percent increase over the prior year. Although alarming, the 50 percent increase in the number of teen deaths between 2013 and 2014 would seem to represent a reversion to recent average fatality totals and the 2013 drop would seem to be an aberration. The increase bears watching however to ensure that the number does not continue to climb.

More than one-third of young worker fatalities in 2014, eight, were under the age of 16. An additional 41 workers aged 18 and 19 died. In all, 64 workers under 20 died. Every six days we are losing a teenager at work. For every family that loses a teen, their child’s preventable deaths are an unspeakable tragedy.

The falling fatalities over the last two decades may represent fewer children working and it may be a reflection of jobs in dangerous industries dropping. The National Consumers League also believes that health and safety education efforts are helping to reduce teen fatalities.

Many teens lack the experience and sense of caution needed to protect themselves from workplace jobs. They are reluctant to refuse to do dangerous tasks or to ask for safety information. Research on the developing brain suggests that there are neurological reasons why teens do not always evaluate dangers properly—the portion of the brain that causes adults to exercise caution is still developing in teenagers.

In 2013, Blake Bryant, a 14-year-old, took a job as tree-trimmer in Palatka, Florida. His boss handed him a chain saw and hoisted him 50-feet high into a tree to cut some limbs. Tragically, Blake cut through his safety harness and plummeted 50 feet to his death. The employer, who violated state law by asking Blake to do prohibited work, is now serving 15 years in prison for aggravated manslaughter. In a published news article, his mother would later say, “I didn’t know he was climbing. Why would you send a 14-year-old in a tree with a chainsaw?”

19-year-old Mason Cox died tragically in a wood chipper accident on his first day on the job.

19-year-old Mason Cox died tragically in a wood chipper accident on his first day on the job.

NCL presents this report to help equip parents and teen workers to protect themselves against dangerous jobs and hazardous work situations. We also hope to educate the public about workplace dangers teen workers face and to help teens and their parents consider the safety of each job under consideration.

There is a shocking variety to the way teens die or are injured in the workplace. Here are some recent examples:

  • Farm hand Heather Marie Barley, 17, of Buckley, Michigan died suddenly while working on a hog farm in December 2015. Heather was found unresponsive. Elevated levels of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide were discovered through atmospheric testing. Michigan’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration speculated that the toxic gases may have come from a steam generator connected to a pressure washer.
  • In December 2015, 19-year-old Mason Cox in Gastonia, North Carolina was working his first day on the job feeding tree limbs into a wood chipper. The operator heard something funny and went back to the chipper and found that Mason had been pulled into the wood chipper, killed instantly. The employer was so disturbed by the incident that he had a heart attack.
  • That same month, 19-year-old Oscar Martin-Refugio was shot in the heart by robbers as he worked in a Bridgeport, Connecticut pizza shop. He died soon after. Two other workers were also shot.
  • In October 2015, Catie Bolt, 13, and her 11-year-old twin sisters, were on a grain truck on their parents’ farm near Rocky Mountain House, Alberta when something went terribly wrong and the girls were under a load of canola seed.
  • Grant Thompson, 18, was killed by a snake bite while working in a pet shop in Austin, Texas in July 2015. A cobra was missing. Grant’s parents owned the store. Interestingly, it is illegal to possess a “dangerous, wild animal” in Texas without a license, but a poisonous snake is not considered a dangerous wild animal by the state, according to news reports.
  • In October 2014, an Idaho teen, 18-year-old Jeremy McSpadden, Jr., of Spokane Valley, Washington portraying a zombie at a Halloween haunted hayride died tragically. The boy, wearing a mask, emerged from a corn maze, approached a bus full of hay ride participants who were shooting paintballs at him and the other pretend “zombies.” Jeremy lost his footing and fell under the rear wheel of the bus. He was killed instantly.
  • In August 2014, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Jonas King, a 15-year-old lost control of a skid-loader that overturned into a manure pit, where he died of asphyxiation.

Our condolences go out to the families of these teens who died tragically and unnecessarily. We hope that sharing their stories here might prevent other tragic deaths.

Jobs for teens are an important part of youth development, providing both needed income and teaching valuable work skills. A survey from Citigroup and Seventeen magazine released in August of 2013, found that almost 80 percent of students take at least a part-time job during the school year. BLS data for January 2016 found that 4.5 million teens between the ages of 16 and 19 were at work. Many teens take summer jobs—according to BLS data last year, just over half of teens were employed in July 2015.

A job can build confidence, teach social skills, and provide an array of other benefits. According to research in the January/February 2011 issue of Child Development, teen jobs decrease the likelihood working teens will drop out of school—as long as teens work 20 hours or less each week during the school year—and they increase future earnings [Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies].