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Do firms need to do more to protect young workers?

It seems that barely a week goes by without one of the UK's courts handing out a sizeable fine to an organisation that has failed to adequately protect a young worker.

One only has to look at the newspapers to find countless tales of teenagers being badly injured while they attempt to do their job. Of course, health and safety is something that people of all ages must take seriously, but it seems that youngsters are particularly vulnerable to workplace hazards.

This should come as no surprise, after all, teenagers do not have the experience or nous of somebody who might have been in an industry for a long time. Quite often, youngsters also feel under pressure to impress their bosses, which might mean they start cutting corners in order to get things done quickly.

Alternatively, they could pick up bad habits from older employees who have become set in their ways and continue to do jobs in a manner that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has deemed to be dangerous.

Either way, it has become depressingly obvious that a lot of businesses are failing to safeguard their apprentices, work experience students and full-time youngsters and the HSE is reporting far too many cases where people under the age of 20 are suffering life-changing injuries.

One thing that the country does not want to see is companies being scared to take on youngsters for work experience. This system offers invaluable life lessons and helps to nurture the next generation of workers.

That said, it is vital that employers use their common sense and don't ask raw youngsters to perform dangerous tasks. One recent example saw a young man suffer serious facial burns and temporary damage to his vision after he was splashed by toxic paint stripper as he completed a work experience placement at a Midlands vehicle repair business.

The HSE said the youngster - who was just 16 at the time - could have avoided the painful injuries if his superiors had given him the correct personal protective equipment, which in this case would have consisted of goggles and gloves.

Following a hearing at Stafford Magistrates' Court earlier this month - in which the firm was fined £4,000 for contravening Regulation 19(2)(b) of the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999 - HSE inspector Katherine Blunt said the company had failed to adequately assess the risks of someone coming into contact with the dangerous substance.

"Work experience is very important for young people in order for them to gain an understanding of the world of work. However, employers must fulfil their responsibilities to assess risks and protect young people by putting the appropriate control measures in place," she remarked.

In another incident, a Gloucestershire manufacturer was also fined £4,000 after a 17-year-old employee severed his fingers on an unguarded cutting machine. The HSE inspector on this particular case - Caroline Bird - said the apprentice had not received sufficient training from his managers before being left alone to operate the faulty machine.

Sometimes, failure to protect young workers can have fatal consequences. The HSE reported in January that a 17-year-old farm apprentice in the south-west of England had died when his quad bike was involved in a collision with a car.

An investigation found that the brakes had failed on the machine three weeks prior to the accident, although Plymouth Crown Court heard that this did not have a bearing on the incident. Although the young man was told by his boss to wear a helmet, he chose not to.

The UK may have one of the most impressive health and safety records in Europe, but incidents of this nature are still far too common for anyone's liking and it is absolutely crucial that companies take extra care to ensure young, eager and inexperienced workers are safe at all times.ADNFCR-2134-ID-801563042-ADNFCR