Workers Health & Safety Centre

Young workers vulnerable to harmful job exposures too study finds

A lack of training is just one factor that makes young workers vulnerable to injury, but it can increase their exposures to carcinogens on the job too says a new study.

While a majority of young Canadians work in retail and service sectors, many find work on construction sites and farms and as lifeguards and landscapers. While safety hazards may be easier to spot, hazardous exposures on these jobs are often invisible and their health impacts not always immediate. New Canadian research explores this knowledge gap and suggests workplace cancer prevention efforts need to better protect this vulnerable group of workers.

Certain jobs increase the likelihood of exposure

Research tells us young workers, often because they are new to the job, have higher rates of injuries than more experienced workers. But do young workers also have increased exposures to workplace carcinogens?
In a new study, Canadian researchers set out to answer that question. They mined 2006 and 2016 Canadian Census data to determine the number of young workers (under the age of 25) by sector and occupation. Then they correlated this data with occupational carcinogen exposure data from CAREX Canada to identify which of these occupations were associated with potential exposures to known or suspected carcinogens. Researchers concluded, “…. young workers in construction, outdoor occupations, and farming are key groups that warrant further investigation.”

Young workers in these occupations can be exposed to multiple carcinogens they found.  
  • Construction: Trades helpers, construction and transportation laborers can be exposed to solar radiation, silica dust, diesel engine exhaust, asbestos, night shift work and wood dust.
  • Outdoor work: Ground maintenance laborers, painters, tree planters, lifeguards, construction workers, and general farm workers can be exposed to solar radiation, diesel engine exhaust, wood dust and pesticides.
  • Farming: Labourers on farms can be exposed to solar radiation, diesel engine exhaust, wood dust and pesticides.

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Why are young workers vulnerable?

The researchers offered that young workers exposed to workplace carcinogens are especially vulnerable because they are still developing and they may be unable to recognize, assess and speak out about job hazards, including long-term health risks. What’s more, exposures earlier in life have more time to develop into deadly cancers. And for workers who start young and stay at high-risk jobs that means more years of harmful exposures. For these reasons and more, the study’s authors recommend developing “…. accurate occupational carcinogen estimates for young workers, as they can inform relevant policies and programs to better protect this population and reduce their risk of cancer.”

The Institute for Work & Health’s OHS Vulnerability Measure identifies other workplace factors that influence vulnerability and which can be addressed through effective hazard controls, policies and procedures and worker training. Those researching the future of work say vulnerable workers will need even more protection as the nature of work evolves.

Quality training—a protective measure

This study reminds us too what research has consistently found, “Unfortunately, young workers often receive inadequate orientation and safety training. The majority of young workers do not receive proper training.” From personal protective equipment to pesticides, training is often inadequate or non-existent, increasing the risk that young workers will be unnecessarily exposed.

Specific studies have found that most occupational health and safety training workers receive is deficient, especially when it comes to workplace hazardous materials. This is why many have long called for mandatory training standards including a WHMIS training standard that would help ensure workers receive consistent, high-quality training. A report on the burden of occupational cancer in Ontario also supports such a standard.

Without training standards legally mandated training can miss the mark. Since July 1, 2014, Ontario employers must ensure workers in their employ complete mandatory health and safety awareness training. An evaluation of these programs found most were deficient and did not increase worker awareness and empowerment. Researchers further observed, “Mode of training matters. Passive training (completing OHS awareness training on-line or through a workbook) is less effective than active (instructor led) training on both awareness and empowerment.”

WHSC training can help

Along with our general training and information resources, Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) was among the first to offer dedicated resources for young workers. We also began delivering Worker Health and Safety Awareness training before it was legally mandated.

We can help support and protect vulnerable workers in your workplace by:
Many of these training programs are available in real-time, instructor-led virtual classrooms. In-person classrooms follow strict COVID safety protocols.  

Don’t see what you need? Beyond the scheduled classes listed above, and where participant numbers warrant, we can work with you to coordinate almost any of our training courses for all workers, workplace representatives and supervisors.

Are you graduating high school this year and heading to post-secondary education this fall? Check out WHSC’s 2022 Student Scholarships.
Need more information still?
Call a WHSC training services representative in your area.
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