De-Constructing Teenagers?

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Teens who land high-paying summer construction jobs may feel lucky to earn, on average, $20 an hour, but the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) – the federal workplace safety research arm – thinks otherwise.

Based on a 2002 NIOSH report, which recommended that the government develop new rules to protect youth from hazardous work, the Department of Labor (DOL) is considering revising child labor regulations to put construction jobs entirely off-limits to anyone under 18. The construction and extraction trades (such as mining) employed nearly 400,000 16- to 19-year-olds last year, according to DOL.

While such a ruling might prevent a lot of injuries, it might also lock countless teens out of youth development programs, such as YouthBuild, that provide job and skills training in home building and renovation work.

NIOSH said young workers in construction trades experience higher death and injury rates. For instance, it found that 15- to 17-year-olds who work in construction appear to have more than seven times the risk of fatal injury as workers of the same age in other industries. They have more than two times the risk of construction workers ages 25 to 44.

DOL said in April that it is considering NIOSH’s recommendations to ban 16- and 17-year-olds from construction and other hazardous work. Certain construction-related tasks – such as excavation and operation of power-driven machines – are already off-limits to minors, but NIOSH recommended that DOL ban kids from working as brick masons, carpenters, electricians and drywallers, among other professions. It also would expand prohibitions in the petroleum and natural gas extraction fields.

Child labor laws restrict the type of work that 14- and 15-year-olds can do, already prohibiting them from almost all construction jobs. For instance, they can’t use ladders or scaffolds or stand on sills to wash outside windows, or operate most power-driven machinery.

In a rulemaking preview, DOL asked for public comment on making certain construction jobs safer for minors, and on ways to design apprenticeships and student-learning programs – which would seem to include youth-serving programs – to better protect teens on the job.

Comments on the advanced notice of proposed rulemaking are invited until July 16. All documents related to the youth employment regulatory processes are at