Andrew Christodoulou explains the legal requirements for apprentices and how they can be protected through risk assessment.

Apprentices are employed across a range of industries and work activities, and many participate in government-funded schemes leading to vocational and other qualifications. Mostly, apprentices are young people who are sometimes very vulnerable in the workplace and more liable to be injured or become ill than their older, more experienced, colleagues.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Labour Force Survey (LFS) statistics illustrate well the special risks to young people at work. According to the HSE/LFS, young men aged between 16 and 24 have a substantially higher risk of workplace injury than older men. The rate of workplace injury in young men is 37% higher for 16–19-year-olds and more than 70% higher in 20–24-year-olds, as compared with older men. Even after allowing for different occupations and other job characteristics, young men face a 40% higher risk of workplace injury than men aged between 45–54. Women show a less obvious link of higher rate of injury with age, but the same factors of inexperience and immaturity apply as much to women as men, and the same overall affect on health and safety can be anticipated.

This vulnerability must be taken into account in risk assessments covering the work of apprentices. Current advice from the HSE is that, if an employer already employs a young person, or has done so in the last few years, its existing risk management arrangements should be sufficient, providing any new young person is of a broadly similar level of maturity and understanding, and has no particular additional needs. If employing a young person for the first time, or employing one with particular needs, an employer will need to review its risk assessment, taking into account the so-called specific special factors for young people before they start their apprenticeship.

So what are the “special” factors that must be taken into account during risk assessment for apprentices? What are the legal requirements for apprentices, and how can they be protected through risk assessment?

Legal background

The first Act designed to protect young people in the workplace, and specifically apprentices, was the Preservation of the Health and Morals of Apprentices 1802. The Act required the cleaning of the workplace “by two washings with quicklime yearly”, adequate ventilation of the workplace through a sufficient number of windows, and to the yearly supply to every apprentice of suitable clothing and somewhere to sleep (no more than two to a bed).

Today, apprentices are protected by the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974, which requires employers to “ensure so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare while at work, of all employees”. The requirement is a general one, but the fact that it is qualified by the term “so far as is reasonably practicable” means that the well-known “cost vs risk” benefit analysis must be carried out. In practice, this means that the increased risks that an apprentice may face because of his or her age, inexperience, immaturity and so on, have to be specifically taken into account.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 also require the protection of young people, including apprentices. Regulation 19 requires employers to ensure that young people who are employed are protected from risks that are a consequence of the young persons’ lack of experience, absence of awareness of existing or potential risks, or the fact that the young persons have not yet fully matured. The regulations require employers to carry out a risk assessment before young people start work.

Common law also requires young people to be treated in a special way. The duty at common law is owed directly by the employer to its employees, which means that personal and special needs must be taken into account. Common law makes it clear that greater precautions must be taken when dealing with young or inexperienced workers, such as apprentices.

In Paris v Stepney Borough Council (1951), a one-eyed man was employed to clean the underside of vehicles, including scraping away accumulated rust. At this time, it was not customary to wear eye protection for this work and consequently none was provided for the one-eyed man. The inevitable happened; as he was scraping away the rust, a splinter of metal blinded his good eye. The employer was held liable for damages. It should have foreseen that the consequences of an injury were greater for the one-eyed man. By analogy, this case shows that a higher standard of care is therefore owed to those with “special needs”, including those arising from youth and inexperience.

Risk assessment for apprentices

Young apprentices are often very vulnerable in the workplace. They are usually inexperienced and unfamiliar with workplace activities and processes. They are often unfamiliar with corporate requirements for health and safety, and health and safety management systems. They are also usually unacquainted with legal requirements and do not always know their rights and duties.

Young people under 18 years of age have not reached physical maturity. This means that exposure to hazardous agents, such as chemicals and radiation, can have a disproportionate adverse effect on them as compared to a mature adult. This lack of maturity and physical development also means that they are more prone to injury than older employees. For example, the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 recognise that the risk of injury is greater for young persons as compared with more mature persons. With training comes the need for close supervision, and young people require more supervision than older, more experienced, employees. Young people often do not have a good understanding and perception of risk. They can be immature emotionally, and many have difficulty relating to the work situation where they may have to follow strict requirements and procedures.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require that, during the risk assessment, special factors that should be taken into account include:

  • lack of experience

  • being unaware of existing or potential risks

  • lack of maturity.

Existing arrangements for assessment and management of risks can be used, including consideration of:

  • the potential lack of physical and psychological capacity of the apprentice

  • the possible exposure to harmful agents, such as chemicals, heat, cold or vibration (the effect of which can be accentuated by youth)

  • the apprentice’s possible lack of experience and training

  • a possible lack of attention

  • the role of supervision, which must be carefully considered so that the correct level and type is provided

  • HSE guidance on managing risk for apprentices.

In practice, employers have to consider whether the work to be undertaken by the apprentice is beyond his or her physical or psychological capacity. Is he or she strong enough or big enough? Does he or she have the intellectual understanding? Does the work involve harmful exposure to substances that are toxic, can cause cancer, can damage or harm an unborn child, or can chronically affect human health in any other way, remembering that young people can be disproportionately adversely affected? Does the work involve a risk of accidents that cannot reasonably be recognised or avoided by young people due to their insufficient attention to safety or lack of experience or training? A young person might be unfamiliar with “obvious” risks, which are clear to more experienced colleagues. An employer should also carefully consider the need for tailored training/closer supervision.

As always, during the risk assessment process, it is important that the time, trouble and expense expended for the assessment is proportionate to the level of risk, and the same is true for control measures implemented. These must be sensible and proportionate. For low-risk work activities, such as office work, it is likely that any additional control measures for apprentices will be limited. For higher risk work, such as construction and the operation of machinery, more extensive controls will be required. However, an important control measure that is likely to be present across all risk levels is dedicated supervision.

Case studies

As reported by the HSE, a Sunderland firm has been fined for safety failings after a teenage apprentice was crushed and killed by a piece of machinery weighing almost a tonne. Jason Burden, 19, from South Shields, was in his fourth year as an apprentice engineer when a 970kg tunnel thruster from a ship overturned and landed on top of him. The Court heard that he was reassembling the machine on a work bench when it toppled onto his torso and left leg, causing fatal crush injuries. The Court was told the company had no documented risk assessment for working on the machine while it was positioned on the work bench, and no documented safety management system for undertaking work on behalf of the thruster manufacturer.

In another incident, a 16-year-old apprentice had a lucky escape from serious injury after falling four metres through a fragile roof light at a farm in Yorkshire. The teenage worker suffered bad bruising to his back, but no broken bones, after his fall through the roof light on a barn where solar panels were being installed by an electrical contractor. It was only his third day at work. At the time, the 16-year-old was on the ground tidying up when he was asked by the other apprentice if he would fetch a tool. Without thinking to put a harness on, the youngster went on to the roof, stumbled and trod on a partially-covered roof light, which gave way, sending him crashing through to land on the concrete floor below.

After the hearing, HSE Inspector Julian Franklin said: “This young man certainly had a close shave. Falling from height remains one of the biggest causes of death and major injury. It is particularly important to ensure that vulnerable young people, new to the working environment, are given very close supervision, clear instructions and are not exposed to risks that they may not be able to envisage.”

Conclusions

Apprentices are at a greater risk of injury and illness than their more experienced and older colleagues. They enter the workplace full of potential, and employers must make sure, through an effective risk assessment process, that apprentices under their charge do not have that potential taken away by inadequate health and safety management.

Last reviewed 1 July 2014