Apprentices and other young workers must be carefully managed to ensure safe work practices on construction sites and other work sites, a leading safety inspector says.

In the latest SafetyCast published by SafeWork NSW, Steve Maher, Principal Inspector at SafeWork NSW, says young workers warrant special attention when it comes to safety.

“Young workers are landing on construction sites with very little knowledge or experience in those sites,” Maher said.

“They are coming in a lot of cases from school where they were top of the tree and they land on a construction site where sometimes, they feel like they are at the bottom of the tree.

“Young workers are not experienced in construction. They are coming on green and don’t know anything about what they are supposed to be doing. They have perceptions though people they have talked to or from what they have seen. But like anything in life, until you have done it, you have got no idea how it is done or how it should be done.”

According to Maher, several parties have responsibilities for young worker safety.

Employers have the primary duty of care and must by law provide a safe environment for all workers.

With young workers, this means supervision along with training and instruction.

Training could be either general around the site or specific to particular tasks. It should ensure that workers understand what is needed both to keep themselves safe and to avoid creating danger for those around them.

Supervision, meanwhile, helps to ensure that tasks are being performed in a safe manner. This should not be confined to young workers but should be regular practice across the workforce, Maher said.

Next, young workers themselves should not only look after their own safety but also to ensure that their actions do not create hazards around them.

When given tasks, they should ask questions if they are unsure what to do.

They should also understand that they have a right to a safe workplace and raise concerns about anything which they feel may be unsafe. Concerns should be raised first with site managers and supervisors. Where problems persist, matters should be escalated to employers (where companies are sufficiently large that employers are off site) and then with SafeWork NSW or the relevant authority in their jurisdiction.

Concerns can be reported to SafeWork NSW anonymously via the Speak Up app.

Third, Maher says supervisors and site managers need to understand that apprentices and young workers are not experienced in construction and may not understand what should be done or how it should be done.

In this context, managers and supervisors should ensure that young workers are supervised and afforded opportunities to ask questions or raise concerns when given tasks.

As well, there should be regular discussions about safety on site. During these, younger workers should be given a voice and an opportunity to raise concerns.

This voice, Maher says, can benefit not just workers but employers as well. Despite their inexperience, younger workers come on site with fresh eyes and may have useful ideas about how practices can be improved.

Finally, Maher says parents and guardians need to speak with young workers and ensure they are aware of the hazards associated with construction sites. This includes ensuring they are aware of the need to listen to their supervisor and to ask questions if they are uncertain, to maintain awareness of their surroundings (noticing that someone is driving a forklift as they are carrying a ladder) and to refuse to do anything they consider unsafe.

This, Maher says is critical as many young people have inadequate perception of potential risk on construction sites, little experience of injury and a mistaken sense invulnerability about the prospect of injuries happening to them.

This is particularly important as sometimes there are no second chances. Irrespective of age at the time of incident, a single fall from a height could end a career or even a life.

Maher’s comments come amid ongoing concern about the number of injuries which happen to young workers.

Whilst the data is not specific to construction, overall figures provided by Safe Work Australia indicates that 14,170 workers who were younger than 25 suffered injuries for which serious claims for workers compensation were lodged across all industries in 2017/28 – the latest year for which data is available.

Regulators are acting.

In the case of SafeWork NSW, the organisation has a four-year strategy to improve outcomes for different groups of workers who are at greatest risk of harm in the workplace.

Along with migrant workers, labour hire workers and CALD workers (differing linguistic, religious and ancestral backgrounds), this includes younger workers.

A young workers e-tool kit, meanwhile, provides guidance on safety for young workers.

In addition to physical safety, Maher stresses the rights of young people to experience an environment which is free from bullying. Whist practices such as hazing as part of initiation might have been accepted in the ‘bad old days’ of the past, he says no practices which can make workers feel uncomfortable are acceptable nowadays.

Above all, Maher stresses the importance of workers refusing to perform unsafe tasks.

“If you are asked to do something which is unsafe, refuse to do it,” Maher said.

“If the employer continues to try to make you do it, jump on the train and come down to our offices and we will manage that risk for you (or use the aforementioned SPEAK UP app).”