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The question: My son wants to work outdoors this summer in landscaping. Is it safe for a teen who is still growing to do manual labour?

The answer: I am impressed that your son is taking the initiative and has the opportunity to have a summer job. Student jobs seem particularly scarce in my community this year.

The potential benefits of a student summer job are many and include life lessons in punctuality, responsibility, and the challenges of working under a boss and alongside co-workers. Summer jobs can boost a student's confidence and independence, and this outdoor job may teach him skills that will prove beneficial later in life both professionally and as a home owner.

This experience may also help him decide whether this is the kind of work he ultimately wants to pursue as a career. Of course, your son will be thrilled with the paycheque too! Provided this is a job with an ethical company with reasonable training and supervision, the risk to your son's growing bones and muscles is probably negligible. I suspect that the risk of musculoskeletal injury is probably higher with competitive sports such as hockey, football, and basketball than it is with manual labour such as landscaping. That is still no reason to be complacent when it comes to safety and taking precautions to prevent injury is always the best strategy. Consider the following:

  • Is the employer reputable? Expect the employer to have policies in place to protect employees from injury. This should include training in the operation of machinery and provision of safety equipment. Look for company employees and supervisors to role model safe practices including proper lifting techniques, wearing a helmet, safety goggles, and noise reducing ear protectors. If possible, speak to either a current or former employee to get their opinion on the safety practices of the company.
  • Be prepared for the elements. Your son has just spent the year indoors at a desk and may not be used to spending a full day outdoors. Sun care is important to prevent heat stroke and skin cancer so consider hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, protective clothing and frequent drink breaks to combat dehydration. Depending on where you live, a DEET containing bug repellant may be necessary.
  • Dress code. Your son’s employer should be able to provide advice on the type of clothing that will be most appropriate for this line of work. Outdoor jobs often require work gloves and safety boots. In my opinion, investing in quality items is almost always worth the extra money. Inferior products wear out faster resulting in replacement costs that can ultimately be more expensive. Working with worn out gloves and boots can leave sensitive fingers and toes vulnerable to injury.

Bottom line, hard physical labour is unlikely to adversely affect your teen's developing bones, muscles, and joints. Insist however that proper safety practices be followed as a concussion, eye injury, or noise-induced hearing loss may have the potential to follow your son for the rest of his life.

Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.

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