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Published: Monday, 8/19/2002

Protect teen workers

Summer's almost over, school's about to begin, and the government still hasn't updated the list of jobs identified as too risky for teenagers.

Annually, about 200,000 teenagers under 18 are injured at work and about 70 die. But the government has been slow to update its decades-old list of jobs deemed too perilous for teens.

A National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health report advises, for instance, that teens not do construction or roof work. But a 1998 study of more than 500 teen employees in North Carolina revealed that about a third use forklifts, tractors, or riding mowers. Also, most working teens under 15 die on farms, and more than half of them work in family-owned businesses.

So who's to blame? Parents must ask questions, visit their teens at work, and inquire about training and supervision. But at the very least, employers are expected to train teen workers and a supervisor should be on site all the time. Yet that isn't always the case when four-fifths of teenagers' injuries occur when no supervisor is around and other injuries are due to improper training.

Existing laws must be enforced. Massachusetts forbids anyone under 18 from operating motorized vehicles, including golf carts. Still, a 16-year-old boy with little training in operating a golf cart died trying to operate one.

Also, a fifth of the teenagers who died while working between 1998 and 2000 were Hispanics, who tend to be exposed to jobs with greater risks. That's a disgrace. Meanwhile, the feds are considering regulatory and statutory changes in light of the safety and health report. For teens' safety, let's hope they move before next summer.

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