Fact Sheet

Youth as Staff

The participation of children of all ages in community service has become common place during the past decade. According to Engaging Youth in Lifelong Service, a report published by Independent Sector (www.independentsector.org) and Youth Service America (www.ysa.org):

By including young participants as paid staff or volunteers, your organization assumes a duty to exercise a reasonable degree of care to protect them from foreseeable harm. This may mean that you will need to assume a greater duty to protect your young participants than you will to safeguard your adult staff and volunteers. You may, for example, be required to exercise greater supervision for young people than for adults. In addition, you may be required to conduct more intensive screening of those who supervise young people than of those who work with adults.

The extent of your duty will depend upon the decisions of the legislatures and courts in the jurisdiction in which your organization operates. The degree of duty may also depend upon the age of the young people involved, upon the nature of your custodial relationship with the young participants and upon other factors that may differ from state to state.

As a rule, the greater the degree of control you maintain over the activities of young people, the greater your duty to protect them from harm. This duty encompasses your need to provide a safe environment and safe materials. You must also select the correct tasks, conduct proper training, and designate adequate and appropriate adult supervisory personnel.


Student Supervision and Safety

Supervising young volunteers and taking steps to protect their safety are important issues for any nonprofit engaging young volunteers. Consider developing a set of rules and policies that minimize the chance that the harm you envision will materialize. For example, a policy requiring signed permission slips provides evidence that a child has permission to volunteer and reduces the chance that a child going against parental wishes will wind up assigned to a service project. Of course, the permission slip must give parents/guardians sufficient detail that will allow them to decide whether their child can participate safely in your program. Identify the types of harm that could occur to young volunteers and list the practical steps your agency will take to reduce the chance of harm and to make certain your agency is prepared to respond if something goes wrong in spite of its efforts. Many nonprofits develop a basic set of rules that apply to activities involving young service recipients, young volunteers or both.

Protecting Young People From Adult Misbehavior

Every nonprofit that involves young people as volunteers recognizes the risk — perhaps remote in most cases — that a young volunteer could suffer harm caused by an adult. The range of potential harm includes physical, emotional and sexual abuse. While it is up to your nonprofit to determine how and when harm could happen and what practical measures are called for, the following list offers strategies that other youth involving and youth-serving nonprofits have adopted in order to protect the young people in their programs.

Minimize the risk of harm to young people by providing two-deep leadership for all activities. At least two adults should be present for all programs sponsored by the nonprofit, thereby avoiding isolation of a young person with an adult.

Instruct adult staff and volunteers about inappropriate and appropriate conduct. For example, under what circumstances is it appropriate to offer or give a hug to a young volunteer? What actions/behaviors are strictly prohibited, such as offering a young volunteer a ride home or striking up a personal relationship with a volunteer outside the bounds of the program?

Instruct young volunteers on appropriate and inappropriate conduct with adult staff and volunteers. Explain whom they should contact if they want to complain about the conduct of an adult in the program.

Establish a process for checking in with young volunteers to determine their feelings about the program and determine if there are issues or concerns that require follow-up. The person conducting this follow-up should be someone other that the person(s) directly responsible for supervising volunteers on a day-to-day basis.

To control the risks associated with adolescent staff and/or volunteers, your organization may choose to develop and/or adapt your 1) Policies, 2) Plans and 3) Procedures so that you can commit to and carry out effective risk management. You will need to start by adopting policies, both general and specific, that commit your organization to providing safe service opportunities for young people. You may then use these policies to review your activities and to develop a plan for dealing with situations that may or will arise that could pose a risk to your young people, your community or your organization. Finally, you can translate your analysis and planning into procedures that you intend your staff and volunteers to follow in order to avoid and to reduce risk.

Make risk management part of your organization’s direction and/or mission. Add a policy to your organization’s mission and goals that reflects your overall commitment. Policy development applies both to general areas of program operation and to specific areas involving young people.

Once you have established your policies in accordance with your legal responsibilities, you will need to apply them to your daily operations. As you examine your organization's activities, you should question whether these activities can be accomplished in a manner that will carry out the provisions of your policies. For example, consider the following questions that must commonly be answered by any program that involves young people in service:

Once you have created your policies and have analyzed your service opportunities to recognize where risks arise, you can then establish procedures to carry out your commitment to safe service. Some policies need to be enforced with sanctions. If so, clearly establish these sanctions to enable your staff to apply them consistently.

Through policies, planning and procedures, your organization can reduce the chance that harm will occur to a level where the impact and/or potential damage will be acceptable for your organization.

Developing Appropriate Service Assignments for Young People

Once you establish procedures and rules of conduct, you need to move on to develop service assignments appropriate for the physical and mental ages and abilities of your potential volunteers. Service opportunities need to be consistent with the capabilities of the young people who will serve. State and federal child labor laws (available from your state and federal departments of labor) may prohibit you from involving young people in certain types of service activities.

Some service opportunities may be appropriate if they are modified to meet the needs and capabilities of the ages of the potential volunteers. Young people may need to perform some tasks differently from adult participants. Children may need to have a task broken down into individual components or into shorter time periods. Children should not be expected to work for periods longer than 60-90 minutes and should complete their assignments during the daytime. Adolescents may be able to handle longer periods of time and later hours of service.

Drafting Position Descriptions

Once you have designed and/or selected the appropriate service assignments, you should next carefully craft position descriptions that effectively define and communicate the extent and limitations of the tasks to the volunteer, his or her parents and the community. Through careful and thorough drafting, avoid creating unreasonable expectations. Written descriptions should explicitly describe the limits and extent of the responsibilities expected of each young volunteer. Draft the description in a manner that the young people will comprehend, using language appropriate for the ages of the participants involved. Carefully describe the tasks, the location(s) where the service will be performed, and the qualifications of those who will supervise the service. The position description should not only describe what the young people are expected to do, but also activities that are prohibited or forbidden. Position descriptions should state the obvious. What is apparent to an adult may not be as clear to a young person.


Screening describes the process by which an organization selects qualified and appropriate participants. An organization should screen both the young people and the adults who wish to work with them. Children and adolescents should be screened to exclude unqualified or unmotivated individuals. Screening also helps the organization to place a candidate in a position that matches his or her interests and talents. Screen adults to select individuals who pose no unacceptable risk to the young participants. Your ultimate goal in screening young people and adults, is to find willing and capable participants who pose no threat to the others with whom they work.

Fatal Occupational Injuries

If your nonprofit organization utilizes adolescent staff and/or volunteers, you should know that each year, approximately 70 adolescents die from injuries at work. Hundreds more are hospitalized, and tens of thousands require treatment in hospital emergency rooms. Adolescents have a high risk for work-related injury compared with adults.

Adolescent and adult workers have similar risks of fatal occupational injuries. This similarity in risk is cause for concern because adolescents are employed less frequently in especially hazardous jobs. The rate of fatal injuries among adolescents should therefore be much lower than for adults.

Nonfatal Injuries

In a recent study, NIOSH estimates that 64,000 adolescents required treatment in hospital emergency rooms for work-related injuries each year. However, research indicates that only one-third of work-related injuries are seen in emergency rooms according to a Centers for Disease Control Report. NIOSH therefore estimates that nearly 200,000 adolescents suffer work-related injuries each year. More than half of the adolescents injured on the job reported that they had not received any training in how to prevent the injury they sustained. A supervisor was present at the time of the injury in only about 20 percent of the cases.

Work Associated With Large Numbers of Deaths and Serious Injuries

Federal child labor laws prohibit some work associated with large numbers of deaths and serious injuries such as operating a forklift. Other hazardous activities, such as working alone in retail businesses and cooking, are typically permitted. A list of hazardous activities for adolescent staff and volunteers are available at Youth & Labor.

Working In or Around Motor Vehicles

Motor-vehicle-related deaths account for nearly one-fourth of the work-related injury deaths of 16- and 17-year-olds. These deaths include those of workers who were drivers and passengers in motor vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists involved in crashes with motor vehicles. Examples of work that may be associated with motor-vehicle-related deaths and injuries include the delivery of passengers or goods, and services that require routine travel to provide home-based services.

Operating Tractors and Other Heavy Equipment

Machine-related deaths are the second leading cause of work-related injury death for 16- and 17-year-olds. If your nonprofit uses tractors, forklifts, excavating machinery (such as backhoes, bulldozers, steam and power shovels, and trenchers) or loaders (such as bucket loaders, end loaders, and front-end loaders), work involving this type of machinery should be limited to adults who are fully trained in their safe operation, if possible.

Working Near Electrical Hazards

Electrocution is the third leading cause of work-related injury death among 16- and 17-year-olds, accounting for a greater proportion of work-related injury deaths in adolescents than in adults. Contact with an energized power line caused more than 50% of the electrocutions.

The following types of work pose an increased risk for electrocution:

Working at Jobs with a High Risk for Homicide

According to the latest statistics from NIOSH, assaults and violent acts account for about one-fourth of all work-related injury deaths of adolescents. Most work-related homicides are associated with robbery (75% in 1993).

The following types of jobs involve increased risk for work-related homicide:

Working with Fall Hazards

Falls are the fifth leading cause of work-related injury death for 16- and 17-year-olds. Forty percent of fatal falls were from or out of a building or other structure.

The following types of jobs are associated with work-related falls:

Cooking and Working Around Cooking Appliances

Severe burns are a risk for adolescents involved in cooking. According to NIOSH, an estimated 5,200 adolescents sought emergency-room treatment for work-related burns associated with cooking or working in a place where food was prepared during the 18-month period from July 1992 through December 1993. Adolescents are at risk for severe burns when cooking, servicing cooking equipment (adding, filtering, and removing hot grease from fryers, and cleaning grills and fryers and their associated vents), and working near cooking appliances where workers may slip into or against equipment.

Hazardous Manual Lifting

For the same 18-month period, NIOSH reported that overexertion accounted for approximately 4,500 work-related injuries of adolescents treated in hospital emergency rooms; about 2,500 of these injuries were attributed to lifting. These estimates are conservative, since sprains and strains that result from repeated stress on the body (as opposed to a single injurious event) are often not treated in emergency rooms but by private physicians or clinics. Although an individual’s ability to safely lift objects varies, work for adolescents should not generally require them to lift objects weighing greater than 15 pounds more than once per minute or to lift objects weighing greater than 30 pounds; tasks involving continuous lifting should never last more than 2 hours.

Existing Regulations

Occupational safety and health regulations apply to adolescent and adult workers. Federal and State child labor laws provide additional protection for workers under age 18. When Federal and State regulations differ on the same issue, the more protective law applies.


The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within the Department of Labor is the Federal agency with primary responsibility for setting and enforcing standards to promote safe and healthful working conditions for all workers. OSHA standards may require specific conditions in the workplace or the use of specific practices, methods, or processes to promote safe work. Employers are responsible for becoming familiar with standards applicable to their establishments and for ensuring a safe working environment.

Violations of occupational safety and health regulations have been associated with deaths of adolescents. Of the 104 deaths of adolescents under age 18 investigated by OSHA between 1984 and 1987, citations for safety violations were issued in 70% of the deaths.

Federal Child Labor Laws

The primary law governing the employment of workers under age 18 is the Fair Labor Standards Act, which is enforced by the Wage and Hour Division of the Employment Standards Administration within the Department of Labor. Child labor provisions of this act are designed to protect the educational opportunities of minors and prohibit their employment in jobs and under conditions that could harm their health or well-being.

Federal child labor laws restrict hours and types of work for 14- and 15-year-olds and set minimum ages for work declared hazardous under the law.

State Child Labor Laws

States also have child labor laws. They may be stricter than Federal child labor laws.


Although working or volunteering in a nonprofit organization can have many benefits for the development of adolescents, the potential for serious injury and death must be recognized and addressed. Large numbers of adolescents are killed and seriously injured at work each year.


Falls From Tractors and Trailing Equipment, National Safety Council, Itasca, Ill., 1995-2004

Herman, Melanie L., and Peggy M. Jackson, No Surprises: Harmonizing Risk and Reward in Volunteer Management, 3rd Edition, Nonprofit Risk Management Center, Washington, D.C., 2004

How to Lift and Carry Safely, National Safety Council, Itasca, Ill., 1995-2004

Independent Sector

Risk Management News, Vol. 1, 2004, Published by Markel Insurance Co.

Seidman, Anna and John Patterson, Kidding Around? Be Serious! A Commitment to Safe Service Opportunities for Young People, Nonprofit Risk Management Center, Washington, D.C., 1996

Preventing Deaths and Injuries of Adolescent Workers, NIOSH ALERT: May 1995, DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 95-125

Youth Service America

Youth on Board

Electrocution Prevention Checklist

Employers of Youth Checklist

Heavy Equipment Checklist

Motor Vehicle Checklist

Preventing Injuries and Homicides from Robberies and Crime in Retail Establishments Checklist