Your teen’s first job is an important milestone. It’s not just a chance for a teen worker to earn money for the first time or build their resume. It’s a chance to teach them about their rights as workers, too. Most importantly, it’s a chance to teach them about occupational health and safety.
Teen workers at risk of injury
You might be surprised to learn that teenagers are at a higher risk of workplace injury than adults. The stereotypical image of an injured worker certainly doesn’t conjure up visions of a teen! But, inexperience and inadequate training leaves young workers at risk. So, too, can the type of jobs teen workers are more likely to perform. In fact, boys aged 10-17 working in food and beverage services made up more than a third of all work-related emergency department visits according to a 2016 study. This same group of boys made up more than 10% of work-related hospital admissions.
Recent reports out of neighbouring Quebec (where kids can work at a younger age) show that this issue isn’t going away. Employers are turning to younger workers in the face of a labour shortage.
What does a teen worker need to know about occupational health and safety?
Ontario workers of all ages have three basic occupational health and safety rights:
- The right to know risks.
- The right to participate in occupational health and safety-related decision making.
- The right to refuse unsafe work.
In other words, an employer has to educate teen workers on the risks associated with their job and workplace, just like every one else. For many workers, these are straightforward physical risks. Training might include teaching a teen how to handle a chemical cleaner or how to lift heavy objects and the risks of doing so improperly. Teen workers should look at the labels and posters in their workplace and ask questions if they are unsure how to do any part of their job unsafely. This poster about injury prevention and this poster about what to do if you are injured should be displayed in your teen’s workplace, and are helpful primers on occupational health and safety.
For a lot of workers, there is a risk of violence, harassment and exposure to trauma.
Violence and Harassment is an occupational health and safety issue
Occupational health and safety legislation in Ontario says that every employer needs a workplace violence and harassment policy. Although some workplaces may seem to place teen workers at greater risk of harassment or violence, this can occur in any workplace.
While violence is difficult to deal with, it is easier to identify than harassment. As a parent or guardian, you’ve probably been teaching your teen how to respond to physical violence since at least their daycare days. Harassment is trickier. It can be difficult for a teen worker to assess what is and is not appropriate workplace behaviour. After all, this is their first job. Even adults have a hard time identifying and responding to harassment.
The legal definition of harassment is:
a course of vexatious conduct which is known or ought to be known to be unwelcome.
This excludes things like performance management or direction in the workplace. A supervisor can tell you what to do and reprimand you for not doing your job properly, even if the experience is unpleasant.
It includes things like sexual harassment, racist harassment and other discriminatory harassment. It can also include non-discriminatory harassment. Some examples are:
- Unwelcome touching
- Sexual or romantic overtures
- Sexist or racist jokes and comments, even if they don’t target your teen specifically. For example, a teenage girl may complain if she has to listen to crude jokes about a co-worker.
- Yelling, threatening and other forms of abusive management
- Hazing a new hire
- Deliberately excluding some one
- Asking a lot of personal questions
Generally, a single incident isn’t harassment. Unless the conduct is very extreme, the behaviour needs to be repeated to be illegal.
However, harassment doesn’t need to be perpetrated by a co-worker or boss to become an issue for your employer. Ontario employers are specifically required to address domestic violence, which can include violence from the teen worker’s family or a romantic partner. They also have to prevent and respond appropriately to harassment or violence perpetrated by customers or the public. For many young workers, this is a significant issue as they may work in service or retail and other public settings instead of a closed, professional environment or facility.
What should a teen worker do if they feel unsafe or are injured?
Whether you feel unsafe or get injured because of your job duties or because of harassment or violence, the steps are the same. Teens may need to talk this through with a trusted adult. Usually, the first step is to report your concern to a responsible person. Workplace policies might offer guidance on the process, but all workers have responsibilities to respond to occupational health and safety risks and all supervisory or managerial employees have a special responsibility.
The next step is for the employer to investigate the concern and, if they agree that it’s unsafe, to take steps to make the worker safe on the job. If they don’t agree or the steps are unsatisfactory, there is a work refusal and appeal process. You can find out more about this process here. In short, you can’t be forced to do unsafe work. But, if you can’t agree with your employer about whether a job is safe, you have to follow specific steps.
If your teen’s workplace is unionized, they can reach out to their union for help. And, unionized or not, most larger Ontario workplaces (20 employees or more) have to have a Joint Health and Safety Committee. The worker members of these committees should be able to help, too.
Finally, most teens work in WSIB-covered environments. Any time they require medical treatment for a work-related injury or illness, they should talk to their doctor about reporting it to WSIB. Young workers are covered, too. And, the long-term impacts of a workplace injury may not be immediately apparent.
What if my teen is just volunteering or doing a co-op placement or unpaid internship?
In Ontario, occupational health and safety rules generally apply to the workplace. That means that the specific employment status of any worker present doesn’t exempt them from the right to be properly trained and to work safely.
Can my teen be fired for asking about occupational health and safety?
It’s illegal to retaliate against a worker for asking about how to do their job safely, for reporting a workplace injury, harassment or violence, or for refusing unsafe work. However, people break laws every day. Fortunately, workers who are fired illegally or face other retaliation in the workplace may have a right to reinstatement and/or compensation. If you or your teen have any questions or concerns about a workplace occupational health and safety issue, you should contact their union, a member of our team, or one of the following free services as soon as possible:
- The Workers Health and Safety Legal Clinic
- IAVGO’s Advocates for Injured Workers Student Legal Clinic
- Your local community legal clinic may offer assistance on workers’ rights issues: find them here.
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