According to Bureau of Labor Statistics fatality records, construction and roofing are two of the ten most dangerous jobs in America. In 2007, an estimated 372,000 workers of all ages were injured in construction accidents and construction led other industries in the number of deaths among all workers: 1,178. A construction worker is nearly three times as likely to die from a work accident as the average American worker.
Young workers are especially at risk given their relative inexperience on work sites and commonplace dangers construction sites often pose. According to NIOSH in 2002, youth 15-17 working in construction had greater than seven times the risk for fatal injury as youth in other industries, and greater than twice the risk of workers aged 25-44 working in construction. In a 2003 press release, NIOSH noted that despite only employing 3 percent of youth workers, construction was the third leading cause of death for young workers.
In 2007, five working youths died in falls—a common cause of death in construction accidents. Among workers 18 and 19, the number of deaths from falls was 11.
Examples of recent teen construction deaths include the following:
- In January, Danilo Riccardi Jr. was trying to get water from a trench so that he could mix concrete when he fell into the large room-sized hole. A muddy mixture of sand and water soon trapped him like quicksand. By the time rescuers arrived, the boy was dead, submerged under the liquid mixture. It took almost three hours to dig his body out.
- A 15-year-old Lawrenceville, Georgia boy, Luis Montoya, performing demolition work, fell down an empty escalator shaft 40 feet to his death. According to a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Labor, minors—defined in the state as being 15 years old—are not allowed to work on construction sites. The company that employed the boy, Demon Demo had been fined by OSHA in 2005 and 2008 because workers did not wear required safety harnesses to prevent falls. The fine in the second violation was reduced from a $4,000 penalty to $2,000. Montoya was not wearing a safety harness when he fell.
- Bendelson Ovalle Chavez, a 17-year-old resident of Lynn, Massachusetts, was fixing a church roof in September 2007 when he fell 20 feet to his death. Employed by the company two months earlier, he had received no training or information about how to prevent falls, according to a report by the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.
- In July 2007, James Whittemore, 17 died while taking down scaffolding at a construction project in Taunton, Massachusetts. The teen was helping his father remove the scaffolding when a pole he was holding fell against a high-voltage electrical wire and he was electrocuted. The boy died in his father’s arms.
- That same month, Travis DeSimone, 17, was working on a Marlborough, New Hampshire farm, converting a barn into a kennel, when a concrete wall collapsed and killed him.
Roofing, siding, sheet metal work, electrical work, concrete work all pose serious dangers. Falls, contact with electric current, transportation incidents, and being stuck by objects are among the most common causes of construction accident deaths.
Federal child labor law prohibits construction work for anyone under 16 years of age (although youths 14 and 15 may work in offices for construction firms if they are away from the construction site).
Labor law regarding work at heights has some inconsistencies. Minors 16 years and older may work in heights, as long as it is not on or about a roof. They can work on a ladder, scaffold, in trees, and on structures like towers, silos, and bridges.
Forklifts, tractors, and all-terrain vehicles pose dangers for many young workers. Several youth tractor accidents have been detailed in our section on agricultural fatalities and injuries. Some recent forklift and vehicle accidents involving youth:
- On May 11th, Miguel Herrera-Soltera drove a forklift up a ramp when it tipped over. The boy fell out of the forklift and it landed on top of him. Fellow workers used another forklift to extricate the boy, but he died at the hospital.
- In March 2008, a 15-year-old suffered a serious leg injury in a Portland, Oregon wrecking lot when a 17-year-old co-worker operating a front loader knocked over a stack of cars and part of a concrete wall collapsed onto the younger boy. No one under 18 is allowed by law to work in an auto wrecking area, or operate a front loader, according to The Oregonian newspaper.
- John Sanford, 18, a forklift operator in Toledo, mistakenly thought he put his forklift in park. The machine was in neutral and when Sanford walked in front of it, he was pinned between a trash receptacle and the lift and killed. (December 2007)
- A 17-year-old in California died when the forklift he was operating at a grain and hay store rolled over on him. The youth had only been employed one hour and misguidedly took the initiative to operate the forklift. (June 2004)
- In Iowa, an 8-year-old was killed helping his father and neighbor chop hay for silage on their dairy farm. The youth was helping, driving to and from the field location on a 4-wheel ATV to assist his father hook up each silage wagon. The boy drove up a slight embankment causing the ATV to roll over on its top and pinning him to the ground. (Summer 2004).
- A 13-year-old Arkansas youth died when the ATV he was driving tipped over on a levee between catfish ponds. The minor was pinned under the water and drowned. (March 2003).
Each year, nearly 100 workers are killed in forklift accidents. Another 20,000 workers are seriously injured in forklift-related accidents. Many of these injuries occur when workers are run over, struck by, or pinned by a forklift. U.S. child labor law mandates an age of 18 to operate a forklift unless the forklift is being operated on an agricultural facility—then the youth operating the forklift can be 16. NCL can think of no rationale for this disparity in safety standards, and child labor advocates in Washington are asking Congress to raise the age to 18 for all operators.
Tractor-related incidents are the most common type of agricultural fatality in the U.S. Increasingly, tractors are being used in non-agricultural industries, like construction, manufacturing, and landscaping. Tractor overturns are the most common event among tractor fatalities, and was the primary cause of tractor-related fatality among youth workers.
ATVs resulted in 44,700 serious injuries of youth under 16. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC) reported that in 2004, 130 children under the age of 16 died in ATV accidents. The Associated Press reported that more than 100 kids died in 2006, although clearly the majority of the fatalities were in non-work-related accidents.