Hours Worked Should Be Limited For Children Under 18; Agricultural Labor Laws Need Strengthening

November 05, 1998

WASHINGTON -- Congress should give the U.S. Department of Labor authority to limit the number of hours worked by all children under the age of 18 during the school year, says a new report by a committee of the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine. Students younger than 18 who work long hours -- generally defined as more than 20 hours per week -- are less likely to advance as far in school as other students, and are more likely to use illegal drugs, partake in other deviant behavior, and get insufficient sleep and exercise.

The Labor Department also should consider limiting the number of hours students can work per day, and regulate the times when they start and stop working on school nights, the report says. Exceptions should be made, however, for students enrolled in high-quality school-to-work programs. Students who must work out of economic necessity also may need to be exempted, but mechanisms should be devised to ensure that their educational needs will be met.

"Although work has many benefits for children and adolescents, it is clear that too much work can be harmful," said committee chair David Wegman, professor and chair, department of work environment, University of Massachusetts, Lowell. "Education and healthy development are of primary importance during childhood and adolescence. Work should help students excel in school and encourage their healthy development."

The committee reviewed data on trends in youth employment, the safety of workplaces for youths and adolescents, and how working affects their health, education, development, and behavior. It determined that current laws and regulations are outdated and do not adequately protect youth from workplace injuries and health hazards, or from other harmful consequences associated with today's work environments.

Work Brings Benefits, Risks

Working has both positive and negative effects on young people, according to research reviewed in the report. It provides them with lessons about responsibility, punctuality, dealing with people, and money management, and may increase their self-esteem and help them become independent and skilled. A small number of studies also have shown that a limited amount of hours worked may improve educational attainment.

About 44 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds work at some point throughout the year, either while they are in school or during the summer, according to the Labor Department. But in surveys of high school students, approximately 80 percent say that they held a job during the school year at some point in high school.

Young people are most likely to be employed in the retail sector, with more than half working in restaurants, fast-food outlets, grocery stores, and other stores. One-quarter work in the service sector, predominantly in health-care settings like nursing homes, and 8 percent work in agriculture. Today students work primarily for discretionary income, but a small percentage work to contribute to their family income. Children who are poor, from a minority group, or disabled are far less likely to be employed than are white, middle-class young people.

Many of the common teen jobs are in industries that have high injury rates for workers of all ages. Furthermore, children and adolescents often do not receive adequate training to help them avoid injuries, the report says. The injury rate per hour worked is almost twice as high for them as for other workers; nearly 100,000 children and adolescents visit hospital emergency rooms annually for treatment of job-related injuries. Hundreds of these young people require hospitalization, and at least 70 die each year. Also, an unknown number of young workers are exposed to toxic or carcinogenic substances and physically damaging working conditions, which may cause illnesses that are not obvious until many years later.

Despite the fact that only 8 percent of children and adolescents who work are employed in agriculture, more than 40 percent of job fatalities among youth from 1992 to 1996 occurred in agricultural settings. The regulations that apply to young people in agriculture are much less restrictive than those in nonagricultural industries. The report recommends that protections from hazardous work for those under 18 be extended to farm labor, including family-owned farms. And it calls for Congress to examine extending Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations to cover all children working in agriculture.

Outmoded Regulations

Most laws that limit work hours apply only to people under age 16, reflecting a time when more people finished formal schooling by age 16 and worked at a young age to contribute to their family's income. Limiting the hours worked for 16- and 17-year-olds makes more sense than in previous decades, because most Americans now attend school at least to age 18. It is also especially critical that teenagers complete high school, because an increasing number of jobs require at least a high school degree.

The Department of Labor should work with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to review the rules that define which jobs are too hazardous for workers under the age of 18 and take steps to eliminate or update regulations, the report says. These agencies also need to develop safeguards that address today's working conditions. The developing physical, cognitive, and emotional characteristics of adolescents -- along with their inexperience -- need to be better studied so they can be adequately considered in estimating the work risks that adolescents face and the training they need.

Although a combination of federal, state, and local data sources provides a fair amount of information about working teenagers, the report notes that significant information gaps remain. NIOSH needs to develop and implement, with other federal agencies, a comprehensive plan for monitoring the injuries, illnesses, and hazards experienced by workers under age 18. The Bureau of Labor Statistics should routinely collect and publicly report data on the employment of young people age 14 and older. In addition, these and other federal agencies should conduct research in several critical areas, including the employment of children under age 14 and the most effective strategies to protect youth in the workplace.

The report recommends steps to promote healthy workplaces and to help students reap the benefits of employment. These include building workplace health and safety information into the School-to-Work programs of the departments of Education and Labor, and calling on the Labor Department to develop criteria for designating "commendable workplaces for youth."

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety and Maternal and Child Health Bureau, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Department of Labor. The committee is part of the Board on Children, Youth, and Families, a joint activity of the National Research Council -- the operating arm of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering -- and the Institute of Medicine. They are private, non-profit organizations that provide advice on science, technology, and health under a congressional charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

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