Child Labor Research Needs

DHHS (NIOSH) Publication Number 97-143
cover of 97-143


The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 emphasizes the need for standards to protect the safety and health of American workers. To fulfill this need, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has developed a strategy for disseminating information that will help employers protect their workers from workplace hazards. This strategy includes the development of NIOSH Special Hazard Reviews, which support and complement the major standards development and hazard documentation activities of the Institute. These documents deal with hazards that merit research and concern from the scientific community even though they are not currently suitable for comprehensive review in a criteria document or a Current Intelligence Bulletin. NIOSH Special Hazard Reviews are distributed to the occupational health community at large—industries, trade associations, unions, and members of the academic and scientific communities.


The Child Labor Working Team of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) presents child labor research needs identified as of July 1996 and recommends interagency collaborations. In addition, the Team supplies information about youth employment, occupational injury and illness in young workers, Federal and State regulation of child labor, and national objectives for the occupational safety and health of youths. The Team also describes 10 NIOSH projects focused on young workers in 1996.

Executive Summary

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Child Labor Working Team was formed in April 1994 to identify research, surveillance, and intervention actions to prevent injuries and illnesses among working children and adolescents. This Special Hazard Review presents the research needs identified by the Team and their recommendations for interagency collaborations as of July 1996. The document uses available data to identify research needs and opportunities for prevention.

Research needs were identified through the diverse expertise and research of Team members and presentations by outside experts. The recommendations in this report were shaped by the following complementary goals:

  • To reduce injuries and illnesses resulting from childhood exposures to hazardous work environments
  • To promote positive, encouraging, successful, and healthy introductions to working life
  • To foster knowledge and skills in safety and health that will remain with youths throughout their working lives and enable them to be active participants in shaping their work environments.

Concerns about the employment of children are not new. Child labor laws enacted in the early 1900s resulted in substantial improvements in working conditions and in the number of children receiving an education. Recent research by NIOSH and others has demonstrated that concerns about child labor cannot be restricted to the past. Although numerous gaps exist in our information, it is clear that employment and occupational injuries and illnesses among children and adolescents are common in the United States. In 1995, an estimated 2.6 million adolescents aged 16 and 17 were employed. Each year, approximately 70 youths die from injuries at work; hundreds are hospitalized; and tens of thousands require treatment in hospital emergency rooms. Children and adolescents have a relatively high risk for occupational injury compared with adults.

Characteristics of youths that differentiate them from older workers (and may increase their risk for occupational injuries and illnesses) include minimal work experience, factors associated with physical and psychosocial development, and the need to balance the demands of school and work. Research on the psychosocial aspects of youth employment have found both positive and negative outcomes. Positive outcomes include the acquisition of basic job skills and enhanced self-confidence and self-esteem. Negative effects include decreased school performance, increased use of alcohol, decreased participation in extracurricular activities, and a consistent pattern of inadequate sleep.

Stakeholders concerned with the occupational safety and health of youths include employers, parents, youths, educators, medical providers, and others interested in the well-being of youths. Efforts are needed to increase awareness of occupational safety and health issues among stakeholders and encourage efforts to prevent occupational injuries and illnesses among children and adolescents. Efforts to promote the safe and healthful employment of these workers can benefit from the broad perspective of community health education.

Children and adolescents are protected by a patchwork of regulations. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations apply to children and adolescents as well as to older workers. Except for exposure to ionizing radiation, OSHA regulations do not differentiate on the basis of age. However, Federal child labor laws provide specific protection for children under age 18. Federal child labor regulations include restrictions on both occupations and hours of work for children under age 16. In addition, the Secretary of Labor declares certain jobs to be too hazardous for minors to perform (Hazardous Occupations Orders). The minimum age for performing work that has been declared hazardous by the Secretary is 16 years in agriculture and 18 years in nonagricultural industries. NIOSH submitted comments when the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in 1994. Several bills have been considered by Congress this year to limit enforcement of or modify specific Hazardous Occupations Orders. States also have child labor laws, which may be stricter than Federal laws. State workers compensation laws affect data that are collected in each State. In addition, some State workers compensation laws provide for increased rates or fines with child labor law violations, and many States limit legal remedies that may be pursued when children are injured or killed at work.

Multiple national objectives, both inside and outside the Federal government, intersect with the mission of the Team. The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Healthy People 2000, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, the Goals 2000 Educate America Act, and the American Public Health Association (APHA) all call for providing students with an education that will prepare them for work. Healthy People 2000 includes a specific objective to reduce work related injury rates among adolescent workers. Youths are a priority area at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and special populations at risk, which explicitly includes young workers, is a priority research area in the National Occupational Research Agenda. Other groups calling for research into the occupational safety and health of youths include the National Committee for Childhood Agricultural Injury Prevention, the National Safety Council Agricultural Division, APHA, and the Child Labor Coalition. APHA and the Child Labor Coalition have both urged coordination of efforts across multiple government agencies.

Most NIOSH research and activities have implications for workers of all ages with the exception of research focused on industries or occupations in which children and adolescents have minimal employment, or special populations excluding children and adolescents. As of July 1996, NIOSH had 10 research projects that take into account the unique characteristics and needs of working children and adolescents. These projects range from the collection and analysis of data on exposures or outcomes to community based demonstration projects. The impacts of these projects will not be restricted to working children and adolescents: they will affect the general workforce as well as the future workforce.

When identifying occupational safety and health research needs for children and adolescents, the Team considered existing knowledge, current research efforts, and needs expressed by stakeholders. The following are research needs identified by the Team:

  • Improved surveillance of work related injuries and illnesses in children and adolescents
  • Etiologic research to identify risk factors leading to work injuries and illnesses of children and adolescents, with particular attention to risk factors that may be specific to youths
  • Research to support assessments of the age appropriateness of specific work tasks
  • Intervention research to identify effective prevention strategies
  • A model for the healthful employment of children and adolescents, with rigorous assessment of diverse benefits for employers
  • Research to promote occupational safety and health education for adolescents and a safe environment in school based or facilitated work experience programs
  • Refinement and expansion of community level interventions to promote safe and healthful work experiences for children and adolescents

Because child labor involves multiple stakeholders, we need routine communication, collaboration, and coordination among Federal agencies such as DOL, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Education, and other agencies within DHHS. Funding by multiple agencies for some projects should be considered. NIOSH should seek partnerships with stakeholders in the private sector as well.


Abbreviation Description
APHA American Public Health Association
BLS Bureau of Labor Statistics
CDC Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
CFOI Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries
CPS Current Population Survey
CSREES Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service
DHHS U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
DOL U.S. Department of Labor
DRDS Division of Respiratory Disease Studies
DSHEFS Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations, and Field Studies
DSR Division of Safety Research
EID Education and Information Division
EPA U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
FACE Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation Program
FLSA Fair Labor Standards Act
HOs Hazardous Occupations Orders
IMIS Integrated Management Information System
NCHS National Center for Health Statistics
NEISS National Electronic Injury Surveillance System
NIOSH National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
NTOF National Traumatic Occupational Fatalities Surveillance System
OD Office of the Director
OSHA Occupational Safety and Health Administration
SENSOR Sentinel Event Notification System for Occupational Risks
SOII Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses


The Team thanks all those who attended and gave expert presentations at Team meetings (Appendix C). The presentations and input from these experts greatly increased Team knowledge and appreciation of the complex issues surrounding youth employment. Special thanks go to several individuals who provided expertise on occupational safety and health concerns for children and adolescents on a regular basis: Letitia Davis, Sc.D., Massachusetts Department of Public Health; David Parker, M.D., M.P.H., Minnesota Department of Health; Suzanne Mager, J.D., and Mary Miller, Washington Department of Labor and Industries; and Chaya Piotrkowski, Fordham University. These individuals are all actively involved in the occupational safety and health of adolescents and were extremely generous in sharing their expertise with the Team. The Team also thanks our supervisors and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Leadership Team for their support and commitment to our efforts at providing an informed response to the occupational safety and health research needs of working children and adolescents.


Mention of any company name or product does not constitute endorsement by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

This document is in the public domain and may be freely copied or reprinted.

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DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 97-143

August 1997

Page last reviewed: June 6, 2014