Many teens said they operated hazardous equipment, received no safety training and worked alone after dark, making them potential targets for burglary and homicide.
"Teenagers are being put in the position of doing tasks that are either illegal or dangerous," said lead author Carol Runyan of the University of North Carolina Injury Prevention Research Center. While enforcement of laws could be improved, she said, "the real burden lies with employers."
Teenagers soon will start applying for summer jobs and parents should talk to them about safety, Runyan said. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. teenagers are injured at work every year and 70 die from their injuries, according to federal statistics.
The telephone survey found:
The findings, appearing in the March issue of Pediatrics, are based on a 2003 telephone survey of 866 teenagers working in the retail and service industry including restaurants, grocery stores and retail stores. The same researchers found similar violations of work rules in a previous survey of North Carolina teens working in construction.
The survey did not include non-English speaking households and 85 percent of the teens were white. More research should be done to include immigrant teen workers, Runyan said.
The results don't surprise Rob Ellis of Toronto, Canada, whose son David died in 1999 at age 18 after becoming entangled in a bakery dough mixer on his second day on the job.
"He's the one who inspired me to get up and try to make a difference," said Ellis, who has become an activist for workplace health and safety. The tragedy that killed his son, said Ellis, could have been prevented by safety equipment, supervision and training.
The study, funded by a grant from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, suggests a need for stricter enforcement of existing laws, Runyan said.
The surveyed teens told researchers they worked an average of 16.2 hours a week during the school year, raising questions about fatigue and school performance, Runyan said.
Chicago resident Amanda Hebeler, who just turned 20, worked many jobs during her teenage years including selling cell phones, cleaning tables and scooping ice cream.
She said she worked 20 to 25 hours a week, sometimes until 10:30 p.m.
"I was really tired at school," she said.
By Carla K. Johnson