Program Teaches Kids About Workplace Safety

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Education

Jennifer Maclachlan talks to Monomoy seventh graders about occupational safety. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM Remember your first job? Maybe it was mowing lawns, delivering newspapers or busing tables. For a variety of reasons, those early jobs can be dangerous ones.

“Safety Matters,” a new program launched at Monomoy Middle School last week, aims to teach kids about workplace safety, maybe even before they get their first job.

“Any workplace has potential hazards,” program presenter Jennifer Maclachlan said. A member volunteer with the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) and the owner of a Sandwich company that makes toxic gas analyzers for worker health and safety, Maclachlan brought the new class to more than 100 Monomoy seventh graders last week.

She asked the students whether any of them had been hurt at work, and one girl said her sister suffered a minor burn while on the job at a local restaurant. Teacher Nancy Gifford told the class that she slipped and fell while working in a pizza restaurant as a teenager. Those injuries were not accidents, Maclachlan told the kids.

“Accidents are things that randomly happen,” while workplace injuries have predictable causes and can often be prevented, she said. The need for better on-the-job safety is particularly great for teens. Statistically, a teenager is injured on the job every nine minutes, and on average, 37 people under age 18 die on the job every year.

The curriculum, developed by the AIHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, includes stories from real teens. The class includes a video interview with a girl whose arms were severely injured when she was working in an ice packing plant at age 14. After six surgeries and two months' recuperation, she has regained some of the function in her hands, but had to give up playing the flute and playing competitive sports. The girl in the video urged kids to ask their bosses for safety training and to pay attention when the training is offered.

Job hazards can take many forms, Maclachlan told the students. Sometimes they're simple safety hazards, like leaving kitchen knives where they could fall and cause injury. Occasionally, workers are exposed to strong cleaners or other chemicals that can cause harm, or biological hazards like bacteria and viruses. Other jobs expose workers to noise, radiation, repetitive motion, extreme cold or heat, stress or even violence.

Whether it's a landscaper working on a hot day or a gas station attendant working alone at night, teens can find themselves in inherently risky situations while on the job. The best approach is for employers to remove the hazards, but when that's not possible, teens should be given safety training and protective equipment, Maclachlan said.

“They should ask for these things. They should ask for training,” she said.

Maclachlan has collaborated with science teachers on Cape Cod for STEM-related projects, often as a member volunteer for the American Chemical Society. She's planning to bring Safety Matters training to every school district on the Cape and Islands next year.

Like the lab training or lock-down drills they have at school, young workers need to be taught about safety when they're on the job, she argued.

“You have a right to a safe workplace,” Maclachlan told the kids.