National Consumers League

Worst jobs for teens in 2010

It’s that time of the year. Teenagers are starting to think about their summer jobs. Where will they work? What kind of work will they do? What will it pay?

2010’s Five Worst Teen Jobs 

  1. Traveling Youth Sales Crews
  2. Construction and Height Work
  3. Outside Helper: Landscaping, Groundskeeping and Lawn Service
  4. Agriculture: Harvesting Crops
  5. Driver/Operator: Forklifts, Tractors, and ATV’s

In 2008, approximately 2.3 million adolescents aged 15 to 17 years worked in the U.S. Unfortunately, the global recession has impacted teen hiring here in the U.S. and jobs are particularly hard to come by for teens these days. According to the New York Times in April 2010, the U.S. economy lost 8.2 million jobs in the previous two years and the teen unemployment rate had risen 26 percent, compared to 9.7 percent for the nation at large. Increasingly, teens are competing with more experienced adults for jobs. The National Consumer League (NCL) worries that the difficulty in finding jobs will lead teens to take jobs that are too dangerous for them.

Jobs for teens are an important part of youth development, providing both needed income and teaching valuable work skills, but we urge teenage workers to ask an important question: Will the job I take be a safe one? The wrong choice could harm you or even kill you.

Each day in America, 14 workers die. In 2008, 34 workers under 18 died in the workplace.

Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to accidents both in normal life and at work. Accidents are the leading cause of death for children between the ages of 10 and 19. In fact, more youth between 10 and 19 die from injuries than die from all other causes combined.

The last six months have seen a number of gruesome news stories about teen work deaths:

  • A 14-year-old in Poquoson, Virginia who was working for a lawn care company was killed instantly when he was pulled into a wood chipper last November;
  • A 17-year-old doughnut shop worker fell into a normally-covered cesspool and drowned in Smithtown, New York this March (authorities believe the cover got knocked off during snow plowing); and
  • The body of 18-year-old Jennifer Hammond—last seen six years earlier selling magazines door-to-door—was discovered in Saratoga County, New York. Hammond was the apparent victim of a homicide.

Could these deaths have been prevented? Two of the jobs mentioned above are on our list of “Worst Jobs for Teens” that we recommend teenagers avoid. The 14-year-old killed by the wood chipper, Frank Gornik, was too young to be legally working with potentially deadly equipment like a wood chipper. Better knowledge of the law, which requires a worker to be 18 to work with a wood chipper, may have prevented his death.

 Deaths from Driving

The most common way for a teen worker to die is in a traffic accident. According to one recent study on unintentional injuries, seven in 10 accidental deaths result from car crashes. In 2008 data from the federal government, 43 of 97 deaths of workers under 19 came in transportation accidents.

We encourage young workers to look for jobs in which they do not drive, are not regularly driven by others or are not driven great distances. When in a car, young workers should wear their seat belt. They should ask that their driver not be distracted by using a cell phone, eating, or other disruptions. They should insist that they drive at safe speeds. According to several studies, the perception that driving in rural areas is safe is very misleading. Rural crashes are more frequent and more severe on a per capita or per mile basis. One report estimated that some rural counties are 100 times more dangerous than many urban counties.

Restaurants, Grocery Stores & Retail Stores

In terms of raw numbers, retail establishments, restaurants, and grocery stores are three of the largest employers of teen workers.

Many teens work in restaurants are at risk of burns and other kitchen-related injuries. In some states, restaurants rank first in the number of youth work injuries, although the injuries are often less severe than in many of the occupations cited in this report. Fryers, meat slicers, knives, compactors, and wet, greasy floors can all combine to form a dangerous work environment.

At times, teenagers work in what is typically a safe environment but do unsafe tasks. For example, grocery stores employ a lot of teen workers and for the most part they provide a safe work environment. However, when workers are rushing or are improperly trained accidents can happen. Workers under 18 are allowed to load trash compactors—found in most grocery stores—but they are prohibited from operating them because of a number of gruesome accidents that have occurred to users in the past. Safety specialists worry that improperly trained youth will not obey the law. Similarly, minors—unless they are working in agriculture--are not allowed to drive a forklift, but young people will sometimes get behind the wheel anyway.

Last year, a woman, barely 18, working in a grocery in Indiana, lost her hand trying to clean a grinder in a grocery store. In April, a New York supermarket was cited for illegally employing a 17-year-old to slice deli meat in violation of child labor hazardous orders.

Retail stores may seem like a safe environment but teens can get hurt lifting boxes, cutting boxes open, crushing boxes, and falling from ladders.

Mall and grocery parking lots are often the site of car accidents and can also be dangerous for young workers.

Nearly all work places hold some danger. Our goal is not to paralyze teen workers with fear but to get them and employers to minimize the risks involved. 

Workplace Violence

Restaurants and retail establishments also hold risks of workplace violence. According to 2008 federal data, 17 workers between the ages of 16 and 19 died from workplace violence.

In January, an Illinois teenager was beaten and sexually assaulted after being abducted from the sandwich shop where she worked alone at night. In some inner cities, young fast-food workers have reported routinely having to deal with gang members who come in to harass and rob them.

Teen workers should not be asked to work alone at night. Employers should discuss security procedures with employees in detail. The Illinois teen who was abducted had become aware that a suspicious person was watching her but did not call the police. She texted her concerns to her boyfriend who rushed to the workplace. He arrived too late to prevent the abduction

Causes of Injuries

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the causes of workplace injuries typically fall into these seven categories:

  • Unsafe equipment;
  • Stressful Conditions;
  • Inadequate safety training;
  • Inadequate supervision;
  • Dangerous work that is illegal or inappropriate for youth;
  • Trying to hurry; and
  • Alcohol and drug use.

The most common causes of death for the 97 young workers (under 19) who died in 2008:

  1. transportation accidents;
  2. contact with objects and equipment;
  3. violent acts;
  4. exposure to harmful substances or environments,
  5. falls;
  6. getting caught in or crushed by collapsing materials; and
  7. drowning or submersion.

Of those 97 youth deaths, in 34 cases the worker was under 18. Of those 34 deaths, 23 involved 16- and 17-year-olds and 11—or 32 percent—involved workers under 16. If parents are thinking that employers would only permit older teens to do dangerous tasks and that younger teens are safer, the statistics do not support that logic.

Males are much more at risk than females. Only one in every 14 adult workers who died at work was a women. Of the 5,071 workers who died in 2008, 1.9 percent were 19 or under.

Many youth involved in workplace accidents are fortunate enough to escape death but receive serious injuries. In 2007, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that there were 48,600 work-related injuries and illnesses among youth 15 to 17 years of age that were treated I hospital emergency departments. NIOSH believes that two out of three injury victims do not go to the emergency room and that the real number of injured workers is about 146,000—or 406 every day.

The National Consumers League issues the 2010 Five Worst Teen jobs to remind teens and their parents to help youth workers to choose their summer jobs wisely. Summer jobs can contribute a lot to a child’s development and maturity and teach new skills and responsibilities but the safety of each job must be a consideration.

Many teens lack the experience and sense of caution needed to protect themselves from workplace jobs. In government speak, “young workers have unique and substantial risks for work-related injuries…because of their biologic, social, and economic characteristics.” They are reluctant to refuse to do tasks because they are dangerous or to ask for safety information.

We ask parents to be involved in their teen’s job hunting and decision making, helping them to select safe employment. An important first step in the process is for parents and teens to acquaint themselves with the laws that protect working teens. Read what a teen worker can and cannot do at www.youthrules.dol.gov. The site provides information for young workers in each of the fifty states.

Other practical advice for parents:

Be involved
Before the job search begins, make decisions with your teen about appropriate employment. Set limits on how many hours per week he or she may work. Make sure your child knows you are interested in his or her part-time job.

Check it out
Meet your teen's supervisor, request a tour of the facilities, and inquire about the company’s safety record. Ask about safety training, duties, and equipment. Don’t assume the job is safe. Every workplace has hazards.

Talk, talk, talk - and listen, too
Ask questions about your teen’s job. Ask teachers to give you a heads-up if grades begin to slip. Frequently ask your teen what she or he did at work and discuss any problems or concerns.

Watch for signs
Is the job taking a toll on your teen emotionally or physically? How is your child’s performance at school? If there’s a loss of interest in or energy for school or social activities, the job may be too demanding.

Our tips for teen workers follow:

Know the Legal Limits
To protect young workers like you, state and federal laws limit the hours you can work and the kinds of work you can do. For state and federal child labor laws, visit Youth Rules.

Play it Safe
Always follow safety training. Working safely and carefully may slow you down, but ignoring safe work procedures is a fast track to injury. There are hazards in every workplace — recognizing and dealing with them correctly may save your life.

Ask Questions
Ask for workplace training — like how to deal with irate customers or how to perform a new task or use a new machine. Tell your supervisor, parent, or other adult if you feel threatened, harassed, or endangered at work.

Make Sure the Job Fits
If you can only work certain days or hours, if you don’t want to work alone, or if there are certain tasks you don’t want to perform, make sure your employer understands and agrees before you accept the job.

Don’t Flirt with Danger
Be aware of your environment at all times. It’s easy to get careless after a while when your tasks have become predictable and routine. But remember, you’re not indestructible. Injuries often occur when employees are careless or goofing off.

Trust Your Instincts
Following directions and having respect for supervisors are key to building a great work ethic. However, if someone asks you to do something that feels unsafe or makes you uncomfortable, don’t do it. Many young workers are injured — or worse — doing work that their boss asked them to do.

One safety expert suggests that if a job requires safety equipment other than a hard hat, goggles, or gloves, it’s not appropriate for minors. 

Five Worst Teen Jobs 

Many specific jobs pose potential dangers to young workers. The five jobs named on NCL’s list of “five worst teen jobs” have proven to be especially dangerous based on anecdotal evidence and federal statistics.

Traveling Youth Crews Performing Door-to-Door Sales

The startling discovery of the remains of a long-missing 18-year-old girl, Jennifer Hammond, in October 2009, served as a painful reminder that traveling door-to-door sales jobs are very dangerous. A Littleton, Colorado native, Hammond, had last been seen six years earlier in a mobile home park in Milton, New York. She failed to show up at a designated pickup spot two hours later. Six years later, a hunter found her remains in a forest in Saratoga County, New York.

Parents should not allow their children to take a traveling sales job. The dangers are too great. Without parental supervision, teens are at too great a risk of being victimized. Traveling sales crew workers are typically asked to go to the doors of strangers and sometimes enter their homes—a very dangerous thing for a young person to do.

Frequent crime reports involving traveling sales crews suggests that the environment they present is not a safe one for teen workers. And with 44 percent of young worker fatalities coming from vehicle accidents, NCL urges teens not to accept any job that involves driving long distances or for long periods of time.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) warned consumers in May 2009 that deceptive sales practices are common in door-to-door sales—the group had received 1,100 complaints in the prior year. “Experience tells us that customers aren’t the only victims of [these scams],” said Michael Coil, President of the Better Business bureau of Northern Indiana, “the young salespeople are also potentially being taken advantage of by their employers and forced to work long hours, endure substandard living conditions and have their wages withheld from them.”

Unfortunately, young sales people are also vulnerable to violence acts by crew leaders. The New York Times reported in October 2009, that “two young people working as itinerant magazine salesmen” in Lakewood, Washington were beaten with baseball bats and golf clubs after they told their bosses they wanted to quit. The victims, whose names and ages were not identified in the article, were hospitalized and their six assailants arrested.

"The industry's out of control as far as violence," Earline Williams, the founder of Parent Watch, one of the groups that follows the industry told the Orlando Sentinel in a December 2009 article that reported the beating of Brian Emery, a sales crew member called “The Kid” by his colleagues [Emery’s age was not reported]. New to traveling sales, Emery, told deputies that his team members gave him $12 to buy beer but became enraged when he bought the wrong brand. Two men were charged with beating Emery, one of whom broke a beer bottle across his face in the incident which took place in Osceola County, Florida.

In May 2008, police in Spokane, Washington investigated a 16-year-old’s claim that she was held as a captive worker by a door-to-door sales company. She escaped after the sales crew leaders beat up her boyfriend because he wasn’t selling enough magazines.

Many youth desperate for work are lured in with promises that they will earn good money, travel the country, and meet fun people selling door-to-door. One young man was told that the experience would be like MTV’s Road Rules.

The reality is often far different. Many salesmen work six days a week and 10 to 14 hours a day. Unscrupulous traveling sales companies charge young workers for expenses like rent and food that requires them to turn over all the money they ostensibly make from selling magazines or goods. When they try to quit or leave the crew, they are told they can’t. Disreputable companies have been known to seize young workers’ money, phone cards, and IDs and restrict their ability to call their parents. Drug use and underage drinking are not uncommon. A New York Times report in 2007 found that crew members often make little money after expenses are deducted. On some crews, lowest sellers are forced to fight each other or punished by being made to sleep on the floor.

Few of the magazine sales teams do background checks on their workers, Phil Ellenbecker, told the Orlando Sentinel. Ellenbecker runs an industry watchdog group based in Wisconsin that has tracked about 300 felony crimes and 86 deaths attributed to door-to-door vendors. "It's not uncommon to get recently released felons knocking on your door trying to sell you magazines," said Ellenbecker.

One salesman who spent 10 years on crews and eventually became a crew manager told the Indiana Student Daily newspaper, “I regret a lot of stuff I did….I’d become this monster. Lying to kids, telling them how good the job was, and it wasn’t a good job at all.”

A tough economy has made it tougher to sell magazines and according to Earline Williams of Parent Watch, that has meant more violence on crews and more sales employees abandoned. “It’s gotten meaner,” she told NCL. 

Among the possible dangers of working on traveling sales crews:

Murder: In addition to the suspected murder of Jennifer Hammond in 2003, other relatively recent murders:

  • In November 2007, Tracie Anaya Jones, 19, who was a member of a traveling sales crew, was found dead of stab wounds. Originally from Oregon, Jones was last seen working in Little Rock Arkansas before her body was found 150 miles away in Memphis, Tennessee. Her killing remains unsolved and was featured on America’s Most Wanted Web site.
  • In Rapid City, South Dakota in April 2004, a 41-year-old man wa