Protecting working students: research spotlights H&S issues

Dec 13, 2012

Protecting working students: research spotlights H&S issuesStudents who work while still in school face a range of health and safety risks, according to recent research conducted by Quebec's Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité au travail (IRSST). Among the health effects reported by students participating in the research: cuts, burns and other physical injuries, symptoms or musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), psychological distress, and fatigue.

Rodola Sibuma-Gomez, a key account manager with Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS), believes that most or all of these injuries and effects are preventable. She offers readers a number of simple, actionable considerations that touch on training, communication and other management essentials.

Read on for more about

  1. why the study findings are important for employers
  2. the prevalence of working students
  3. who participated
  4. where the students were working
  5. what health effects the students experienced
  6. how the work environment contributed
  7. steps employers can take to protect working students
  8. how WSPS can help

1. Why the study findings are important for WSPS employers

Working students are found in many workplaces, and especially in these sectors involved in the IRSST study: retail trade, accommodation and the food industry. (For a breakdown of study participants by sector, see "4. Where the students were working.")

The findings focus our attention on an urgent issue. Young workers (15-24 years old) are more likely to be injured than workers in any other age group. Furthermore, new workers of any age are three times more likely to sustain a lost-time injury in the first month than workers employed for a year or more (see below for 2010 injury statistics in Ontario). These two findings mean young and new workers in your workplace are at a greater risk of injury. They also explain why Ontario's Ministry of Labour has already conducted three workplace blitzes on young and new worker health and safety. Expect more such blitzes to come.

2010 Young Worker Injury Statistics*

Claim Type

Number of Claims

% of Total Claims

Allowed lost time

6,713

11.2

No lost time

18,949

15.1

Allowed lost and no lost time

25,662

13.8

Fatalities

6

9.0

* Source: WSIB Young Worker Statistics Report 2010

They can help us reduce the risk of injury among our own young workers. Keeping workers safe also keeps us in compliance with the law, improves productivity, reduces the risk of business interruption and loss, and enhances workplace morale.

2. Prevalence of working students

The IRSST study report notes that, increasingly, working is a way of life for many students. A recent survey of 3,500 young Quebecers attending high school showed that more than half worked during the school year. Even more junior college or community college students work (70-80%). Most have little prior work experience.

3. Who participated

The study recruited 94 youth ages 19 to 21 who were working and studying concurrently. This group included 40 young men and 54 young women. Among them, 53% had begun working from ages 15 to 17, and 57% held the same position for less than a year. According to the report, the hours these students devoted to paid work were on top of the hours devoted to lectures, homework and study.

4. Where the students were working

The table below identifies the industry sectors in which participants were working.

Industry sector

Men

Women

Total

Retail trade

14

22

 36

Accommodation, catering, bars and nightclubs

11

10

21

Arts, entertainment, recreation and sports

4

5

9

Health care and social assistance

0

6

6

Educational services

2

3

5

Other*

 9

8

17

Total

40

54

94

* Other sectors Include the following: construction • manufacturing • government • information and cultural industries • wholesale trade • professional, scientific and technical services • administrative, support, waste management and sanitation services

5. What health effects the working students experienced

Two out of five women and nearly one in five men reported an overall level of fatigue considered high enough to require medical attention. Researchers attributed a number of factors to the fatigue, besides the number of hours worked: organizational work constraints, psychological pressures, social support at work, and the cumulative effect of having held a large number of jobs since the age of 15.

The majority of students did not view their workload as too high, but one in five still perceived the work as difficult, tiring, demanding or stressful. Half of the working students had sleep problems.

Almost three quarters of the participants reported experiencing at least one accidental event over the two years preceding the study. These were either incidents (61) or accidents (26). The majority of accidental events could be described as minor. However,

  • 39 study participants had sustained cuts
  • 20, burns
  • 20, contusions
  • 9, sprains or fractures

Among participants reporting incidents, 31 said the incidents were too frequent to count. Following an accident, 13 participants consulted a doctor or went to a hospital. Four participants received stitches, three had to wear a splint, and one required surgery.

Eight accidents resulted in work absences lasting 10 days or more. Seventeen accidents were reported to the employer. Only three cases led to changes in work equipment or spatial planning.

6. How the work environment affected them

While a combination of factors contributed to many accidents, the report notes, inexperience was rarely one of them. Among the factors:

  • poor spatial planning and equipment characteristics. For example, one worker had to access stored materials by climbing onto a counter and handling a display support with his arms above his head. The support ultimately dropped onto his knee. In another instance, a student worker bruised an ankle while handling a heavy truck with no brakes on a dimly lit slope.
  • weight, dimensions and stability of equipment.
  • faulty or unsuitable equipment. One young worker sustained burns while trying to pick up residue at the bottom of a deep fryer with tongs that were too short.
  • working under pressure. A young saleswoman given only two hours to place clothes on a shelf located high up was injured when she decided to carry several garments simultaneously.
  • working alone. A female worker had to single-handedly lift up an elderly dependent patient who had fallen down.

7. Steps employers can take to protect working students

WSPS' Sibuma-Gomez offers HSO Network News readers the following advice on how workplaces can protect working students and other vulnerable employees, such as new and temporary workers, not only during their initial four weeks when their exposure to risk increases, but throughout their employment at your workplace.

  • Ensure your orientation training is comprehensive and up to date so that vulnerable workers have a clear understanding of
    • workplace hazards and controls
    • their rights and responsibilities
    • what the employer and supervisor expect from them

This can be done in phases, perhaps building it into shifts, and by pairing new workers with a mentor.

  • Ensure all workers participate in health and safety activities, events and training. For example:
    • schedule fire drills at times that accommodate everyone
    • include part-time workers in hazard and new product training by conducting demos/training during weekends
    • ask vendors if they have demos on line
  • Measure learning to ensure all workers retain and apply new skills and expertise. For instance, conduct surveys and observe workers in action.
  • Provide regular feedback on worker progress. Just as an employer would give feedback to full-timers, part-time workers also need to know how they are doing. At minimum, this reinforces expectations and demonstrates that the operation is committed to employee success whatever jobs they have.
  • Create an environment that encourages constructive communication. Invite questions, suggestions and feedback. For a number of reasons, young and new workers are less likely to ask questions than any other workplace group. Don't let this create a communication barrier.
  • Review the way in which work is organized. Are materials stored in easily accessible areas? Is the work area kept tidy and free of obstructions? This can be a particular challenge for the retail and hospitality sectors during the holiday season, when they may hire temporary workers to cope with demand. Additional possibilities include cross training employees to vary the nature of work performed, especially if repetitive tasks are involved.
  • Review opportunities for part-time workers to access employee benefit programs. For instance, follow McDonalds' example and extend benefits to part-time workers. Also, shorten the time period after hiring in which health benefits become available. Is it possible to create a different type of benefits package, not necessarily insurance based, for part-time staff?

Additional reading

How WSPS can help

Workplace Safety & Prevention Services and its Health & Safety Ontario partners offer e-courses, orientation training programs, pictograms, consulting services and other related resources for protecting vulnerable workers.