Lack of Central Database Hinders Youth Workplace Safety Efforts

If you can’t measure it, you can’t fix it.

Panelists at the New York State Assembly’s Committee on Workplace Safety said on Wednesday that a major obstacle to reducing the high rate of workplace injuries among youth is the lack of a central database that tracks them. This, in turn, hinders the identification of trends, such as whether workers in certain jobs are injured more than others, said Robert Grey, 45, a worker’s compensation attorney.

“You can’t prove there’s a problem, because the information isn’t there,” he said.

According to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, workers between the ages of 15 and 25 are twice as likely to be injured on the job than older workers. In New York State, more than 10,000 workers between the ages of 16 and 24 were injured in 2009, according to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The overlap between the two agencies’ data sets is telling, says Grey, who represents the New York Center for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH). He said the system is flawed because it does not track youths’ state employment certificates, or “working papers”, which school officials must issue before minors may take a job. “The working papers are not collected by any part of the state, so the Worker’s Compensation Board doesn’t get all of the claims,” he said, explaining that the certificates are kept on file only by the employer. “The system is totally useless,” he said.

Without accurate data, many agencies involved in the issue, such as the New York State Department of Labor and the Workers’ Compensation Board, can’t even agree on the definition of a young worker. For example, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines young workers as those between the ages of 15 and 24. However, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics separates out its data into 16 to 19-year-olds and 20 to 24-year-olds.

The distinction is significant, said Grey in his testimony, pointing out that of the nearly 10,000 lost-time injuries involving 15 to 24-year-olds between 2007-2009, the majority were incurred by 18 to 19-year-olds who no longer need an employment certificate.

Mark Humowiecki, 39, deputy director of policy and program development with the Workers’ Compensation Board, agrees with Grey’s assessment. Many agencies rely on the board’s data, which shows a 176 percent decline in claims filed by youth under 18. But he’s not confident about the completeness of the data. “I don’t think this data tells the whole picture. We don’t know what’s happened to the rate of accidents, because we’re not comparing the number of employees,” he said.

Improving data collection is not the only way to improve worker safety among young people, said others on the panel, which included representatives from state and federal agencies and unions. For example, workplace safety training, said a representative from the United Federation of Teachers, is critical for minors, who have a lack of knowledge of workplace culture and may be less skilled than older workers.

Grey, however, continued to emphasize the need for a database of youth workers as a prerequisite to discussions on safety training. “The starting point is you have to centralize data collection. The easiest way to do that is by centralizing the working papers program,” he said.

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