A Howard County eighth grade student's leg was severed Sunday while he was working at a commercial car wash in Laurel, and the youngster did not have a state work permit required for child labor, according to a lawyer for the youngster's family.

Matthew Garvey, who turned 14 Sunday, lost his right leg when his pants snagged on a fast-spinning towel dryer, according to car wash management and investigators.

Garvey, a student at Hammond Middle School who won breakdancing contests at local community centers, was listed in good condition yesterday at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. Doctors operated for more than three hours to reconstruct a portion of his leg above the knee, hospital spokesmen said.

Police and representatives of the Maryland Labor and Industry Commission yesterday were investigating the dryer, records and other work conditions at Quality Car Wash, on Rte. 1 in Prince George's County.

State investigators said they will be trying to determine whether car wash management had illegally hired Garvey when he was 13, had hired him without a proper work permit for that type of work, or had allowed unsafe working conditions that contributed to the incident.

"I feel very certain, just looking at the initial report, that {Garvey} was probably working at an occupation that we would not normally give permission to do," said Nancy Burkheimer, deputy commissioner of labor and industry.

According to Maryland law, no one under the age of 14 can be hired in a commercial work place, and the employer is responsible for verifying the prospective employe's age.

Employers who hire workers between the ages of 14 and 17 are also responsible for filing work permits with the state, which must approve the type of work the youngsters will perform. Employers who violate the age requirement can be prosecuted and, if guilty, are liable for a $10,000 fine, a year's imprisonment or both.

Garvey, who had been working weekends at the car wash for a month, was apparently seated on the top of a front-loading industrial dryer, dangling his legs into a top-loading dryer nearby, when the accident occurred, car wash personnel said. His pant leg caught on the inside of the circular, spinning, top-loading dryer, and his leg was severed within seconds, they said. He was taken to the hospital by U.S. Park Police helicopter.

Car wash manager Betty Leininger said yesterday that Garvey was one of three teen-agers hired to towel-dry cars there and that he was the youngest worker when he was hired a month ago. Leininger said she did not know if car wash owner Sully Lee, who bought the business in February, had applied for a work permit for Garvey. Lee was not available for comment.

Leininger said that the car wash had proper safety equipment to stop the dryer but that "it spins real, real fast, and even when you shut it off, it continues to spin."

Martin Gerel, an attorney for Garvey, said yesterday that the youth did not have a work permit. Howard County school officials said yesterday that no work permit was on file for Garvey at Hammond Middle School, which issues such permits throughout the year.

"His job was to dry cars," Leininger said. "He was not supposed to be sitting on that dryer, and I had told him two times earlier {on different occasions}, 'Don't sit there. It could rip your leg or arm off,' " Leininger said. "Why do kids do these things? They don't think . . . . Everybody is upset."

According to Maryland records, 85,446 work permits were issued last year for workers between the ages of 14 and 17. Investigators issued citations against 97 firms that did not have proper documentation for 373 youngsters who worked last year. All of those violations resulted in warnings to the employers, state personnel said.

"I have never known anyone to be prosecuted under this law," said labor official Burkheimer. "But nobody is usually hurt like this."

Under workers' compensation law, employes are prohibited from suing employers and instead are eligible for compensatory payments. But an employer who hires an underage worker is liable for additional payments. Maryland law provides that an injured worker who is underage and does not have a work permit is still eligible for workers' compensation benefits.

If the employer is found at fault for not keeping proper documentation on the worker's age, the worker can collect double damages. In that case, the employer -- not the insurance company -- is responsible for the added payment, officials said.