By Reid Maki, Coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition
It’s almost too painful to talk about: a few days before Thanksgiving in a small Virginia town called Poquoson, Frank Gornik, 14, was removing storm debris for his uncle’s company. The boy, a freshman in high school, fed branches into a wood chipper. He used a shovel to help force the branches and that shovel was grabbed by the machine and—in an instant—swallowed the boy and killed him.
Each year, 35-40 teens die similarly unimaginable deaths in workplace accidents—tractor rollovers, work-related car accidents, drownings in grain silos. Here at the National Consumers League, we try to monitor these deaths to prevent them from occurring. A decade ago, the number of working teens who died on the job was about double what it is today. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, federal and state departments of labor, nonprofit organizations and employers worked together to help bring the number of deaths down, but we must keep working to reduce that number even further.
Sadly, although it was a freak accident, Gornik’s death was preventable. The boy was much too young to work with such deadly equipment. Over the years, state and federal officials have realized that teens lack the judgment and experience to operate some hazardous machinery and require workers to be 18 to use them (although some exemptions are made for agriculture). Because of their ability to inflict massive and instantaneous damage, wood chippers are among the proscribed machines. Under the Bush administration, the U.S. Department of Labor refused to enact NIOSH-recommended changes to the “hazardous orders” regulations that would have improved teen worker safety protections. It is our understanding that under Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis’ leadership, the department is working to update those regulations and close some current exemptions that allow teens to perform dangerous work.
Although Gornik had his share of sadness— according to local newspaper reports, he lost both parents in a two-year stretch between 2005 and 2007—he was remembered by many fellow students for his ready smile and helpfulness. He was a very popular student who played sports and made the honor roll, and the Poquoson community continues to grieve his loss.
It’s hard to make any sense of an unspeakable tragedy like this, but the lessons learned from the accident that took Frank Gornik’s life might prevent similar deaths. Each year, NCL publishes a report—“The Five Worst Teen Jobs”—about dangerous job for teens, hoping that parents, employers, and young workers will carefully consider which jobs they take and what tasks they perform at work. It’s vital that employers learn state and federal child labor and safety laws, and it’s vital that young workers think about their own safety and know that they are able to say “no” to any job task that is dangerous or against the law.