Teen construction workers in NC often perform risky, prohibited tasks

July 03, 2006
Most teenaged construction workers in North Carolina are doing jobs that are considered risky or are prohibited by federal and state labor laws, according to a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study published this week in the journal Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.The study was based on telephone survey of 187 people, ages 14-17, who worked construction jobs in North Carolina during the summer of 2001. Most – 84 percent – said they had performed tasks on the job that people under age 18 are prohibited by law from doing, such as operating power saws, working as an electrician’s helper, or working in trenches deeper than four feet or at heights greater than six feet. Nearly half of the teenaged workers said they had performed three or more prohibited tasks during their employment.

Photograph of Dr. Carol Runyan

Photograph of Dr. Carol Runyan

“These activities put teenaged workers at great risk because they don’t yet have the training, experience or judgment to handle a task like using a skill saw or operating a fork lift,” said Dr. Carol Runyan, lead author of the study, director of UNC’s Injury Prevention Research Center and a professor of health behavior and health education in the UNC School of Public Health.

“Despite the gains we’ve made over the years in occupational safety and health, construction is still one of the most dangerous industries in the country, and teenagers working these jobs face the greatest risks of all,” Runyan said. “Our findings suggest that we need to take a hard look at our child labor laws and how we ensure compliance by employers.”

All of the survey participants had gotten the required work permits and had a parent’s permission to participate in the study. Nineteen of the survey participants were younger than 16, which means they could legally work only for construction businesses wholly owned by their parents.

Approximately half of all 187 study participants worked in businesses that were owned by members of their own families or in which family members also worked. Most worked eight hours a day, but the range was three to 12 hours.

There are a number of construction tasks that teenagers under 18 are allowed by law to do. Nearly 96 percent of survey participants said one of their tasks was to clean up the work area. Other common and approved tasks include getting tools, equipment and supplies for the worksite; using a shovel; removing nails, screws and rivets; using a handsaw; planting trees, grass and shrubs; and spraying paint.

However, many other construction tasks, such as using most power tools, putting on shingles or other roofing materials, and using explosives are expressly prohibited by law unless the worker is enrolled in a bona fide apprenticeship or student learner program.

“We only surveyed teens who had legally obtained the necessary work permits, so they were probably working for relatively responsible employers,” Runyan said. “And still, a startling number of them reported that they were performing tasks that state and federal laws prohibit for minors. Our fear is that teens working without permits are exposed to even greater hazards and violations.”

Runyan said that employers, parents and teens need to understand not only the laws but the dangers associated with legal activities as well. She suggested that people interested in knowing more about labor rules and laws visit the state labor department’s Web site at: www.nclabor.com.

Runyan’s collaborators on the study include Dr. Janet Dal Santo, senior research program coordinator and project director at UNC’s Injury Prevention Research Center; Dr. Michael Schulman, professor and director of graduate programs in the department of sociology and anthropology at N.C. State University; Dr. Hester Lipscomb, researcher with the division of occupational and environmental medicine at Duke University; and Tom Harris, chief of staff and general counsel with the State Employees Association of North Carolina.


Note: Runyan can be reached at (919) 966-3916, carol_runyan@unc.edu.

News Services contacts: L.J. Toler, (919) 962-8589, or Karen Moon, (919) 962-8595.

For further information please contact Ramona DuBose either by phone at 919-966-7467 or by e-mail at ramona_dubose@unc.edu.