The teaching of trades through the apprenticeship system dates at least as far back as the Roman Empire, and continues to this day in classic trades such as shoemaking, carpentry, stone masonry and so forth. Apprenticeships can be informal, where a person desiring to learn a trade finds a skilled employer willing to teach him or her in exchange for work. However, most apprenticeships are more formal and involve a written contract between the employer and the apprentice, who is bound to serve the employer for a given time in return for training. These formal apprenticeship programmes usually have standard rules regarding qualifications for completing the apprenticeship that are set by an institution such as a trade union, guild or employer organization. In some countries, trade unions and employer organizations run the apprenticeship programme directly; these programmes usually involve a combination of structured on-the-job training and classroom instruction.
In today’s technological world, however, there is a growing need for skilled labour in many areas, such as laboratory technicians, mechanics, machinists, cosmetologists, cooks, service trades and many more. The learning of these skilled trades usually takes place in vocational programmes in schools, vocational institutes, polytechnics, colleges with two-year programmes and similar institutions. These sometimes include internships in actual work settings.
Both the teachers and the students in these vocational programmes face occupational hazards from the chemicals, machinery, physical agents and other hazards associated with the particular trade or industry. In many vocational programmes, students are learning their skills using old machinery donated by industry. These machines often are not equipped with modern safety features such as proper machine guards, fast-acting brakes, noise-control measures and so forth. The teachers themselves often have not had adequate training in the hazards of the trade and appropriate precautions. Often, the schools do not have adequate ventilation and other precautions.
Apprentices often face high-risk situations because they are assigned the dirtiest and most hazardous tasks. Often they are used as a source of cheap labour. In these situations, it is even more likely that the apprentice’s employers have not had adequate training in the hazards and precautions of their trade. Informal apprenticeships are usually not regulated, and there is often no recourse for apprentices facing such exploitation or hazards.
Another common problem with both apprenticeship programmes and vocational training is age. Apprenticeship entry age is generally between 16 and 18 year of age. Vocational training can begin at elementary school. Studies have shown that young workers (aged 15 to 19 years) account for a disproportionate percentage of lost-time injury claims. In Ontario, Canada, for the year 1994, the largest proportion of injured young workers were employed in the service industry.
These statistics indicate that students entering these programmes may not understand the importance of health and safety training. Students also can have different attention spans and comprehension levels than adults, and this should be reflected in their training. Finally, extra attention is needed in sectors such as service industries, where health and safety has generally not received the attention found in other industries.
In any apprenticeship or vocational programme, there should be built-in safety and health training programmes, including hazard communication. The teachers or employers should be properly trained in the hazards and precautions, both to protect themselves and to teach the students properly. The work or training setting should have adequate precautions.