By Stephen Thomas, Health and Safety Consultant at Croner,

It’s coming to the end of the school year and for some young people that means entering the workplace for the first time, many as apprentices. Did you know that the rate of workplace injury in young men face a 40% higher risk of workplace than their older counterparts? In this article, I look at the legal safety requirements for apprentices and how employers can protect them through risk assessment.

Legal background
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”. In addition the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 requires 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.

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.

Risk assessment for apprentices
Young apprentices are often very vulnerable in the workplace. They are usually inexperienced and unfamiliar with workplace activities and processes.

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.

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.

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.

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.