Reducing Risks among Child Workers
By: Megan Avakian
An estimated 215 million children are employed worldwide across a variety of sectors including agriculture, construction, mining, and manufacturing, according to a 2011 report by the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour. More than 53% of these children work in hazardous conditions putting them at risk of injury, chronic illness, and death. Although it is a pervasive social problem, particularly in developing countries, very little research has investigated the effects of occupational hazards in working children. Without the research to inform and support policy change, implementing protective measures to keep the world’s working youth safe is difficult.
“We have conducted research examining occupational exposures in adults, but very few people have looked at exposures in adolescents and younger children that are working,” said Diane Rohlman, Ph.D., a scientist in Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa.
The unique biological and behavioral characteristics of young workers make them particularly susceptible to occupational health and safety risks. For example, children breathe faster and more deeply than adults causing them to absorb a larger dose of toxicants per unit of body weight. Their smaller size may put them at additional risk due to inadequate fit of personal protective equipment or the use of machinery designed for larger body sizes.
Although limited, studies with young workers have shown that, compared to non-working youth, young workers have a higher prevalence of injury, decreased neurobehavioral functioning, and a greater incidence of health problems, such as respiratory, gastrointestinal, and cardiovascular irregularities.
Funded by NIEHS through the Fogarty International Center, Rohlman and a group of colleagues from Menoufia University, located in Shebin Elkom, Egypt, examined the neurobehavioral effects of organophosphate exposure on 9 to 18 year old male pesticide applicators in Egypt. Compared to a control group, those exposed to pesticides had decreased neurobehavioral performance and reported more neurological symptoms such as blurred vision, depression, dizziness, and fatigue.
Training to educate various stakeholders and the youth themselves about occupational hazards can help to reduce work-related injuries. For example, in the United States programs to inform adolescent farmworkers, along with parents and employers, about what skills are appropriate for children of different ages have successfully reduced the number of injuries and increased safety related behaviors among young workers in the agricultural industry.
“Training can be a fairly inexpensive and effective method to address hazards in the workplace. For example, programs that provide young workers and supervisors with information about how to safely wash pesticides off the skin can provide low-cost, simple solutions to help reduce pesticide exposure,” said Rohlman, who hopes to implement a program in Egypt to reduce harmful exposures among adolescent pesticide applicators.
“Whether or not we do this research, children will continue to work. By using our research as a tool to provide employers and regulating agencies in developing counties the evidence and information they need to address the issue, we can start to see real improvement in the workplace,” said Rohlman.
- Using epidemiology and neurotoxicology to reduce risks to young workers. Rohlman DS, Nuwayhid I, Ismail A, Saddik B. Neurotoxicology. 2012; 33:817-822. doi: 10.1016/j.neuro.2012.02.012
- Effects of occupational pesticide exposure on children applying pesticides. Abdel Rasoul GM, Abou Salem ME, Mechael AA, Hendy OM, Rohlman DS, Ismail AA. Neurotoxicology. 2008; 29:833-838. Doi:10.1016/j.neuro.2008.06.009
- International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour. 2011. Children in hazardous work: What we know, What we need to do. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Organization.