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Changing demographics reset workplace safety

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HOUSTON — Changing workplace demographics are creating several new challenges for risk managers, notably in the area of safety.

An aging workforce requires new approaches to workplace safety, observers say, noting the effect of older employees on workers compensation costs and the need for work processes and equipment to be re-examined and modified.

But any discussion of demographics also must note that younger workers have different expectations than their older counterparts. And the pending arrival of “the Baby Zs” will bring yet another worldview to the mix.

The traditional Social Security retirement age of 65 is no longer the norm, said Robert C. Prior, a Tampa, Florida-based senior consultant with Aon Risk Solutions, speaking during a session at the Public Risk Management Association's annual conference in Houston this month. Older workers present new issues for employers, he said.

Joe Galusha, group managing director for risk control, claims and engineering with Aon Risk Solutions in Southfield, Michigan, said older workers tend to have fewer injuries than their younger co-workers, but their injuries tend to be more severe. Older workers may also suffer from chronic conditions such as diabetes, which can make treatment more complex, he said.

Mr. Galusha cited an Aon Risk Solutions study of the cost of workers compensation claims over the 2007-2012 period for claimants younger than 45 and those 45 and older. The claims for the younger group averaged $5,215 while those for the older group averaged $9,068, he said.

“We've got to make a workplace that's more age-friendly,” he said.

Mr. Prior provided tips to make a workplace easier for an older workforce to navigate. These include accommodation for vision, hearing and cognitive ability, among others, he said.

When addressing vision issues, make sure lighting is adequate for the task and glare is reduced, Mr. Prior said. For hearing issues, reduce noise levels and use sound-absorbing materials in workplace design. And to deal with cognitive issues, minimizing the complexity of tasks can be effective, he said.

In another session, Kansas City, Missouri-based motivational speaker and team building consultant Candy Whirley described other generational changes issues in the workplace. The workforce currently consists of three major cohorts, she said: baby boomers, Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980; and millennials, or Generation Y, born be-tween 1981 and 2000.

In addition, she warned: “Buckle up. The Baby Zs are coming.”

Each of the broad age groups has certain characteristics, which Ms. Whirley demonstrated by dividing her audience into baby boomers, Xers and millennials and asking them six questions.

The answers showed the gulf among them: For example, when asked about their work ethic, the baby boom group cited getting the job done and dependability, the Xers cited fulfillment and keeping priorities straight, and the millennials cited open communication and knowing what's expected through feedback.

Ms. Whirley asked why baby boomers stay on the job even when they're working for bad bosses or facing other difficult situations. She answered her own question by saying that's what we were taught.

However, she said, the two younger generations saw baby boomers still got laid off despite loyalty to their jobs, which helped form their approach to work.

The groups differed by their motivations while at work as well. Baby boomers value teamwork, pride, security and money; the Xers cited pride and climbing the corporate ladder; and the millennials cited education and flexibility.

Ms. Whirley warned that Generation Z, those born after the millennials, will bring a new set of approaches. This generation has grown up in an age of terrorism and mass shootings at schools and movie theaters, she said — meaning they don't feel safe wherever they go.

“They trust nobody,” she said. “They trust nothing.”