Speaking Out for Young Workers

Speaking Out for Young Workers

Commentary and news on occupational health and safety for young workers.


Risks for Young Workers in the Restaurant Industry

 By Carlos Rios

To prepare for working in the real world, adolescents and young adults have many opportunities to learn about the responsibilities they will face on the job. School, extracurricular activities, chores, and work are just some examples of the responsibilities they take on during this time in their lives. Despite the importance of being responsible for everything you do, nothing has a higher priority than one’s own safety. According to several studies, workers ages 15 to 24 years old are twice as likely to be hospitalized due to workplace hazards when compared to workers over 25 years of age. Safety hazards, as well as worker rights violations, lead to physiological and psychological harm, both temporary and permanent.


If you were asked what workplaces these injuries and violations occur in, what would be your answer? Would it perhaps be construction? Factory and machinery? Chemical plants? While these workplaces are likely places for injuries and safety violations to occur, the fact is that every job industry has some form of safety hazard. Most recently, one industry you may have thought of as safe has received the news spotlight regarding safety and health hazards in the workplace – and that is the restaurant industry.


Earlier this month, a McDonald’s fast-food restaurant in Pooler, Georgia was mentioned in the news for injuries of persons who were exposed to an undetermined air contaminant. Nine individuals were injured or made ill from the events, including three firefighters, an employee and a family of three. Unfortunately, one person, an 80-year-old woman, died due to the exposure.


It was discovered that a ruptured pipe in the soda fountain machine was to blame. The pipe, which carries carbon dioxide to and from the machine to give soft drinks their fizz, broke within the restaurant walls, seeping carbon dioxide out into the women’s bathroom. Because the bathroom was small, there was little room for the carbon dioxide to dissipate, leaving insufficient oxygen in the air; this lack of oxygen resulted in those exposed experiencing injuries like light-headedness, and ultimately resulting in one death.


While an incident like this seems very unusual and rare, this is the third time in six years at a McDonald’s restaurant alone that this situation has happened. Reports of the injured employee at the Pooler restaurant are unclear as to whether he or she was a young worker. However, at the preceding incidents in Florida, one injury and death occurred to a 24-year-old pregnant woman and an 18-year-old man, respectively.


In addition to safety hazards, worker rights violations occur. Local Atlanta fast food chain “This Is It! BBQ and Seafood” was recently cited for violations in workers pay regulations and labor time restrictions for young workers. According to an investigation conducted by the US Department of Labor, workers under 16 years old at some of the chain restaurant’s locations were allowed to work later than 9PM in the summer (June 1 through Labor Day) and later than 7PM during the school year. Regulations created by the Fair Labor Act (FLSA) prohibit workers younger than 16 to work outside of 7AM to 7PM, more than 3 hours a day and 18 hours a week between Labor Day and June 1. Also these workers are not allowed to work outside 7AM to 9PM, more than 8 hours a day and 40 hours a week, between June 1 and Labor Day. Because of these violations, This Is It! BBQ and Seafood was fined $1,867, and was required to pay $104,089 in back wages to 230 restaurant workers.


Both of these incidents mentioned posed many risks to young workers. The carbon dioxide leak at the McDonald’s in Pooler could lead to temporary or permanent lung damage, which could affect breathing and cause other health issues in the future. In addition, the exposure could very well lead to death, as tragically happened to the 80 year old customer and a young worker at the restaurant in Florida. As for the violations at This Is It! BBQ and Seafood, working long hours or late nights can affect these workers’ academics. This could lead to poor grades and possibly not graduating from high school; it can also cause problems in the future should a young worker decide to attend a higher-learning institution or apply for another job.


As with any hazard or violation, situations like these can be prevented. Not only is it the obligation of employers to do their best to prevent them from happening, but of employees as well. From reporting hazards to your employer to filing a report with OSHA, there are many ways young workers can speak up to keep themselves and others safe from harm.


To young workers everywhere: just think of it as another important responsibility you are given as you prepare yourself for the real world.

For more information about the incidents, check out the following links:

McDonald's:  http://savannahnow.com/news/2011-09-14/carbon-dioxide-blamed-pooler-mcdonalds-death#.Tntf-uuhC_U


This is It BBQ:  http://www.cbsatlanta.com/story/15400939/230-this-is-it-bbq-seafood-employees-recieve-back-pay