Does OSHA Protect Teen Workers?
If you’re a worker in the United States, you have a right to work in a safe environment. Even if you work in an industry that has a reputation for being dangerous, you don’t have to work in an environment that makes the job even more hazardous than it already is. This is true no matter what age you are, even if you’re a teenager working a part-time, after school job.
Teenagers may be new to the workforce, but they often find themselves working in environments that can easily become dangerous if they aren’t handled correctly. Fast food restaurants can be full of hot cooking equipment, slippery floors, and sharp tools. Working in stores can involve moving heavy boxes of inventory, sometimes with forklifts. Teenagers who get jobs mowing lawns with a landscaping company might have to work outdoors in high temperatures. Since teenagers often don’t have a lot of experience working, they might not realize they are covered by laws meant to protect workers from unsafe workplaces or might be afraid to speak out about potentially dangerous situations out of fear of losing their jobs.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) works to keep workers of all ages safe on the job. Just because you’re young, doesn’t mean you’re immune to being injured on the job. Restaurants and other retail establishments are the industries with the highest rates of adolescent worker injuries in the United States and more than 2 million people under the age of 20 are exposed to farm-related job hazards every year. Just recently, OSHA fined Case Farms Processing, a chicken processing plant, over $1.4 million after a teenager had to have his leg amputated below the knee as a result of an injury caused by cleaning a machine in their plant in Canton, Ohio.
If you’re a teenager and find yourself in a situation you believe to be hazardous, the first thing you should do is alert your manager or supervisor about the hazard. It’s possible they might not have been aware of the situation so you bringing it to their attention gives them a chance to fix it. If your manager or supervisor doesn’t remedy the problem, you can file a complaint with OSHA. You can file OSHA complaints online, by calling your regional OSHA office or 1-800-321-OSHA, or by downloading a form and mailing it or faxing it in to your regional OSHA office.
When a hazard is so dangerous that you don’t have time to file a complaint with OSHA, you may have a right to refuse to work if, and only if, specific conditions are met. You can refuse to work if you’ve alerted your employer to the hazard and they won’t fix it, if you genuinely believe the hazard presents an imminent danger, if it’s something a reasonable person would recognize as a very dangerous or potentially deadly situation, and it’s something so dangerous, you don’t have to file a complaint with OSHA. If all of these criteria apply to your situation, ask your employer to be assigned a different task where you won’t have to come into contact with the hazard. If they don’t accommodate that request, tell them you won’t work until the problem has been corrected. Do not leave the workplace until you are directed to do so by your employer.
When you file a complaint with OSHA, your identity is kept confidential so your employer won’t know who filed the complaint. OSHA also protects employees from being retaliated against for speaking out about dangerous situations. If an employer figures out who filed a complaint with OSHA, they are not allowed to retaliate against the employee by doing things like firing, demoting, or reducing the pay of the employee. If you have reason to believe you are being retaliated against for complaining about an unsafe workplace, you can file a discrimination report with OSHA within 30 days of the retaliatory act.