Last reviewed 8 September 2021

Psychological and physical immaturity, inexperience, and a lack of awareness of, or disregard for, work hazards are among the factors which make young people more at risk in the workplace. Gordon Tranter takes a closer look at the legally required risk assessment when employing a young person.

The law: risk assessment

There is specific legislation on the employment of young persons. The European Directive 94/33/EC on the protection of young people at work has been implemented in Great Britain in the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (MHSWR) and in Northern Ireland in the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000.

For the purpose of these regulations:

  • a young person is defined as any person who has not attained the age of 18

  • a child as anyone who has not yet reached the official minimum school leaving age (the way this is defined differs in the devolved administrations).

Employers of young persons must carry out or review an assessment to the risks to their health and safety before they start work, which takes particular account of the:

  • inexperience, lack of awareness of risks and immaturity of young persons

  • fitting-out and layout of the workplace and the workstation

  • nature, degree and duration of exposure to physical, biological and chemical agents

  • form, range and use of work equipment and the way in which it is handled

  • organisation of processes and activities

  • extent of the health and safety training provided or to be provided to young persons

  • risks from agents, processes and work listed in the Annex to Council Directive 94/33/EC on the protection of young people at work.

Employer are required to ensure that any young persons they employ are protected at work from any risks to their health or safety which are a consequence of their lack of experience, or absence of awareness of existing or potential risks or the fact that young persons have not yet fully matured. They must not employ young persons for work:

  • which is beyond their physical or psychological capacity

  • involving harmful exposure to:

    • agents which are toxic or carcinogenic, cause heritable genetic damage or harm to the unborn child or which in any other way chronically affect human health

    • radiation

  • involving the risk of accidents which it may reasonably be assumed cannot be recognised or avoided by young persons owing to their insufficient attention to safety or lack of experience or training; or

  • in which there is a risk to health from:

    • extreme cold or heat

    • noise

    • vibration.

However a young person who is over the minimum school leaving age can be employed for this type of work if:

  • it is necessary for their training

  • the young person will be supervised by a competent person

  • any risk will be reduced to the lowest level that is reasonably practicable.

A child must never carry out such work involving these risks, whether they are permanently employed or under training such as work experience.

Certain regulations, including the Ionising Radiations Regulations 2017 and the Control of Lead at Work Regulations 2002, include restrictions on the employment of young persons. In addition, both L114 The Safe Use of Woodworking Machinery and L112 The Safe Use of Power Presses Approved Codes of Practice to the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 state that young persons should not be allowed to use high-risk woodworking machinery or operate a power press unless they have the necessary competency, including completing appropriate training, and maturity.

Before employing a child the employer must provide a parent of the child with comprehensible and relevant information on the risks to their health and safety identified by the assessment and the preventive and protective measures.

The law: working time

The Working Time Regulations 1998 include special regulations for workers who are under 18 but over school leaving age. These restrict their working hours to 8 hours per day and 40 hours per week. The rest break is 30 minutes if their work lasts more than 4.5 hours. They are also entitled to two days off each week.

Normally young persons should not work between 10pm and 6am, or if they are contracted to work past 10pm not work between 11pm and 7pm. Although there are some exceptions which allow young people can work throughout the night, but only as long as the following conditions are met:

  • the work is needed “to maintain continuity of service or production”, or to respond to a surge in demand

  • an adult is not available to perform the duties

  • their training is not adversely affected

  • they are properly supervised

  • are given compensatory rest.

If all of these conditions apply then young persons can work throughout the night if they are working in a hospital or somewhere similar; or working in connection with cultural, artistic, sporting or advertising activities.

In addition those young persons who work in agriculture, a shop, a hotel or catering business, restaurants and bars, a bakery and postal or newspaper deliveries can work up until midnight or from 4am.

The risks

Being new to the workplace, young people will encounter unfamiliar risks from the work they perform and from interacting with the working environment. However, up-to-date accident/injury statistics and details on activities and how these are linked with accident and/or fatality rates among young workers is limited.

There was evidence that young people are at greater risk of having an occupational accident when compared to older workers, with the risks being greater in certain sectors such as construction, manufacturing and agriculture, along with engineering, motor vehicle repair, hotels and catering. Common types of occupational accidents for young people include being struck by a moving vehicle, injuries due to incorrect manual handling procedures, slips, trips and falls-related injuries, injuries from electrical equipment, machinery related injuries and injuries due to exposure/use of harmful chemicals/substances.

The risk assessment

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 states that “An employer shall not employ a young person unless he has, in relation to risks to the health and safety of young persons, made or reviewed an assessment”. The HSE has emphasised that this does not mean that an employer has to carry out a separate risk assessment for each young person, but they can review their existing risk assessment and take into account the specific factors for young people, before a young person starts with them. The HSE recommends:

“If an employer currently employs a young person, or has done so in the last few years, their existing arrangements for assessment and management of the risks for new young people in the workplace should be sufficient, if the new starter is of a broadly similar level of maturity and understanding, and has no particular needs.”

However, if a young person is not currently employed and has not been in the last few years, or a young person is employed for the first time, or if a young person with particular needs is employed, the risk assessment should be reviewed before they start. The review should try to look at the workplace from a young person’s point of view and consider what dangers they will recognise and whether things like work tools are too large and awkward for them if they are not fully grown. In addition, the review should make sure that a young person understands what is expected of them, that they understand and are able to remember and follow instructions.

In low-risk businesses with every day risks which a young person is likely to be familiar with, for example an office, the review should be straight forward.

Work in higher-risk environments

For work in higher-risk environments, such as construction and manufacturing, the assessment needs to consider the risks involved in the work the young person will be doing and how these are managed.

In higher-risk environments, an assessment is needed to consider whether the work is of a nature that the young person must be prohibited from carrying out work, or whether the existing controls are adequate or whether new controls are needed to ensure they are not subject to the risk of harmful exposure. Particular attention must be given to exposure to radiation, noise and vibration, toxic substances, or extreme temperatures.

MHSWR requires, that in reviewing the assessment for a young person, the employer should take particular account of risks from agents, processes and work listed in the Annex to Directive 94/33/EC on the protection of young people at work. This includes information on the agents, processes and work which are likely to entail specific risks of harmful exposure to which young people must not be exposed. Part I of the Annex (as amended) includes a list of chemical agents to which young persons must not be subject to harmful exposure.

MHSWR states that “No employer shall employ a young person for work involving harmful exposure to agents which are toxic or carcinogenic, cause heritable genetic damage or harm to the unborn child or which in any other way chronically affect human health”. This does say young persons must not work with these substances, but they must not carry out work that involves exposing them to harmful exposure to these agents.

The HSE answers the question “What constitutes harmful exposure?” on its website. In the section Frequently asked questions: Young persons it gives its their answer “Harmful exposure means exposure that has long-term health effects on a still-developing young body. An employer should be aware of the substances a young person might come into contact with in their business and will need to consider exposure levels and ensure legal limits are met.”

For any substances that can chronically affect human health it cannot be enough to limit the exposure to below the Workplace Exposure Limit or any other Occupational Exposure Limit. The employer has to decide whether the risk of exposure is likely to have long-term health effects on a still-developing young body.

In addition, Part I to the Annex states that young persons should be prohibited from work involving harmful exposure to biological agents belonging to risk groups 3 and 4 as defined in Directive 2000/54/EC on the protection of workers from risks related to exposure to biological agents at work.

There are some processes and work for which the employment of young people is prohibited. These include:

  • manufacture and handling of devices, fireworks or other objects containing explosives

  • work with fierce of poisonous animals

  • animal slaughtering on an industrial scale

  • work involving the handling of equipment for the production, storage or application of compressed, liquified or dissolved gases

  • work involving a risk of structural collapse

  • work involving high-voltage electrical hazards

  • work the pace of which is determined by machinery and involving payment by results.

A young person cannot carry out work involving work which is beyond their physical or psychological capacity or mental maturity. Consequently where lifting or other manual handling operations are involved the assessment should check whether the young person is capable of safely carrying out the operation required and of remembering and following instructions.

Another risk that should be considered is whether there is a likelihood of exposure to violent or aggressive behaviour.

Work experience students

Children who are in their last year of compulsory schooling usually participate in work placement schemes approved by the local education authority. This usually takes the form of a one-week placement. Many colleges and other training providers also have schemes where young persons take part in work experience of varying duration with employers.

The Health and Safety (Training for Employment) Regulations 1990 require the employer to treat work experience students no differently from other young people that they employ.

Consideration needs to be given to the safety of children and the organisation should consider a suitable worker screening scheme for those who will work with and have access to children. Screening by the Disclosure and Barring Service can be used to check if a worker has a criminal record.

The risk assessment for children will need to be more rigorous as their inexperience and lack of maturity and any consequential lack of awareness of risks will be more pronounced. An explanation of what the significant risks are and what has been done to control them should be given to parents and children. This can be done in whatever way is simplest and suitable, including verbally, and is very often done through the school or college.