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State stresses the importance of safety in child labor

Posted: Friday, March 11, 2011

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development has had its hands full across the state with the issue of child workers. Training specialist Nathan Menah of Alaska Occupational Safety and Health addressed the Juneau Chamber of Commerce on the city’s numbers of child workers and business’ responsibilities in the matter.

He said child labor is linked to economic trends. As such, the number of minors working dropped in Juneau between 2008 and 2009, but increased slightly in 2010.

Menah’s goal in his work has been to reduce child labor injuries and benefit the employers by preparing them to hire those who will make better and safer employees. Menah said the majority of businesses want to follow good guidelines in child labor, with not many who don’t care about such safety.

“I tell kids this, 99.99 percent of employers out there, and this is true because I used to investigate you guys, 99.99 percent of employers out there are great employers. They care about their employees. They care about their business,” he told the crowd.

State laws dictate that children can start working at age 14 with appropriate work permits. There are exceptions to this permit rule for newspaper delivery, babysitting and domestic work in private homes. Entertainment work, such as acting, is also permitted at this age but requires an entertainment permit.

Kids no longer need permits for jobs when they hit age 18. However, 17-year-olds are able to sign their own permits if working for an unlicensed establishment.

He said that employers must educate themselves on child labor laws and use common sense when hiring a youth. He said employers must look for kids that show responsibility and ability to follow instructions in everything from safety to the ability to show up on time. He said the hirers must be very choosy in this regard, as kids who aren’t in school can make a good impression but may still end up a safety risk if they cannot do what they need to.

He continued that kids who have gotten into trouble or kicked out of school will often go looking for a job, and employers may end up hiring a high-risk kid, even if they have good intentions of helping the youth out. He said it’s important to find out why someone that age isn’t in school during the day.

“The thing is that one in school and doing well will make a better employee and will be a safer employee. They actually follow instructions and (are) apt to follow safety issues than one who is non-attentive,” he said.

He said sometimes employers will hire the first kid who strikes him or her as favorable.

Menah explained that the safety issue is exceptionally important when dealing with minors.

“My goal is to maintain a zero death rate. We have not lost a kid since 2002,” he said, noting there have been some close calls.

In 2008 there were 169 workers compensation claims filed for injuries. That number dropped to 69 in 2009. Nine of those were in Juneau.

The claims dropped again to 38 in 2010, with only three in Juneau.

Menah told the Empire that some explanation for this decline lies in the smaller amount of available work for kids, but that doesn’t account for that big a drop, saying, “We’re not sure why this is but we’re just glad.”

“My goal is to get those numbers to zero, just like the death rate,” he said. He said this goal is completely attainable, as the numbers have been dropping already in recent years.

He said his department has talked to students, teachers and parents but a large responsibility still rests on the employers hiring these kids.

Menah said it’s also important for the parents to get involved and can talk to their kids about what’s going on in their workplaces, to ask them about where they work and what their jobs involve.

“That would go a long way in keeping us from getting involved,” he said.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.



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