Worker’s Death Results In Prison Time

Employers must be aware of very specific regulations pertaining to young workers.

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The owner of a Florida tree service company will spend 15 years in prison for aggravated manslaughter of a child in the death of a 14-year-old employee. John Wilkes pleaded guilty and was sentenced in February. 

Wilkes’ intentions were good when he hired the boy. The youngster was following in the footsteps of his grandfather, the owner of another tree trimming company who had passed away about eight months before the 2013 accident. His mother thought he was just working on the ground, but he was 71 feet up a tree when he either cut his safety vest or it failed and he fell to his death. 

Under state law, he was too young to be climbing trees, which led to the manslaughter charge. Wilkes did say he thought the boy was 16, but that is still too young under state law and OSHA regulations. The company was fined $10,900 by OSHA for four “serious” violations, including the general duty clause to provide a safe workplace. 

OSHA regulations ban those under 18 from occupations listed as hazardous:

  • Trenching or excavating
  • Driving a motor vehicle or working as an outside helper on motor vehicles
  • Using many power-driven machines and tools (saws, chainsaws, shears, wood chippers, cutting discs, woodworking, hoists, meat processing and packing, metal forming, bakery, balers, compactors and others)
  • Roofing work
  • Manufacturing or storing of explosives
  • Mining
  • Forest fire fighting and forest fire prevention, forestry and occupations in logging and sawmilling
  • Exposure to radioactive substances and ionizing radiation
  • Manufacturing brick, tile and related products
  • Wrecking and demolition

(Agricultural jobs have different regulations.) Federal law further restricts jobs based on age.

Under 14

OSHA’s youth page specifically mentions three jobs they can have: deliver newspapers, babysit and gather evergreens and make evergreen wreaths. These youths can also work for their parents’ business if it is not a banned occupation.

14 and 15

At this age, young workers can take on a variety of jobs, but most don’t pertain to the construction trades. Related positions for 14- and 15-year-olds include:

  • Errands or delivery work by foot, bicycle and public transportation
  • Cleanup and yard work (no use of power-driven mowers, edgers or similar equipment)
  • Dispense gasoline or oil for cars, and washing or hand polishing cars
  • Loading or unloading objects for use at a work site
  • Limited tasks in sawmills and woodshops (must meet certain requirements)

Hourly restrictions for 14- and 15-year-olds

  • All work must be outside school hours (with a few exemptions)
  • No more than three hours on a school day
  • No more than 18 hours per week when school is in session
  • No more than eight hours per day when school is not in session
  • No more than 40 hours per week when school is not in session
  • Cannot work before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. (9 p.m. from June 1 to
  • Labor Day)

16 or 17

Any job not listed as a hazardous occupation and no hourly restrictions. 

According to OSHA, 335 young workers were killed in 2013 and more than 170,000 were injured in 2012. When employing those under 18, companies are required to inform young workers about the hazards of the job, provide information about OSHA standards, conduct safety training regarding workplace hazards and required safety gear, inform them whom to talk to if they have a health or safety question, and educate them about what to do if they get hurt on the job.  

While Wilkes’ prison sentence may be a rare outcome of employing a teenager, it illustrates the importance of being aware of the laws and regulations that apply to your company.

Check your state laws and regulations for other requirements concerning the employment of children — you must follow the most restrictive.

For more OSHA information about employing young people, visit


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