When Chelsea Bourque, 17, took a summer job scooping frozen yogurt, her mother, Kim Guidry, was confident her daughter would gain good life experience. And Chelsea was eager to make her own money and be more independent. Kim felt doubly reassured because she'd known the store owner in New Iberia, Louisiana, for years. Chelsea did such a good job that when summer ended she was asked to stay on and even open and close the shop sometimes. That was when Kim started feeling uneasy. "She'd be there alone with a drawer full of cash for the first or last 20 minutes of her shift," says Kim. "If she was opening, I'd drop her off, tell her to lock the door the minute she got into the building, and I'd wait in the car until the owner arrived. If she was closing, I'd arrive 20 minutes early. You can't be too careful."
Kim's concerns were natural. Even though the 6 million American teens who hold jobs reap multiple benefits -- learning to manage money, developing time-management skills, gaining a sense of responsibility, and becoming efficient at problem solving with other people -- they face some potential downsides as well. About 230,000 teen workers are injured yearly, in incidents ranging from burns and cuts in restaurant kitchens to accidents with power tools and falls from roofs in construction and landscaping jobs. Deaths, fortunately, are rare, but they do happen -- between 60 and 70 each year, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (Close to half of those are in agricultural jobs.) And there are other hazards that don't threaten life but can still inflict emotional damage, including sexual harassment and encounters with hostile coworkers, managers, or customers.
It's no wonder kids are experiencing so many of the ups and downs of work life -- they're racking up a lot of hours. A new study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill finds that American teens average about 16 hours a week on the job; more than 80 percent of them work after 7 p.m. on school nights and over half of them are still toiling away after 9 p.m. Much of the trouble kids encounter happens in those evening hours.
But for most teens -- and their parents -- the payoffs of working far outweigh the risks. Help your teens get the most out of employment with these stay-safe strategies.