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Safety culture creation complicated in multigenerational workforces

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INDIANAPOLIS — With changing demographics and an aging workforce, employers need to create an effective safety culture that addresses a multigenerational workforce, according to experts speaking at the 2017 National Safety Council Congress & Expo on Monday in Indianapolis. 

“In 2008, we had a severe economic downturn and that is one of the things that has delayed people from the (65+) age bracket from starting their retirement...there may have been a lot of people delaying retirement that are now ready to move on to the next phase of their life,” said Peter Sullivan, Houston-based manager at Accenture Consulting.

This creates issues because when this “tenured class of employees that are running your business” leaves, the “knowledge of how to operate safely...walks out the door with them,” he said.

With a mix of different generations working together, experts say there are different expectations for what the workforce should be and different ways for engaging these classes of employees. 

It is estimated that millennials will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025. Millennials value a collaborative and open communication style, and technology plays a role. “The class that is about to be the ruling class within our workforce have different expectations than how businesses are operating today,” said Mr. Sullivan. 

Certain industries like chemical companies have difficulty attracting millennials due to slow technological advancements in those industries, he said. 

“When you look at the younger class that’s coming in the workforce, the millennial generation, they have a base expectation that technology is going to be part of their working process,” said Mr. Sullivan.

When it comes to creating an effective safety culture in the workplace, baby boomers can pass down unwritten knowledge that stems from years of service to their employers to millennials, according to experts. 

For example, there is knowledge that may not be written down that employers need to start transferring to specs, procedures or systems to capture, said Sharlie Staab, Dallas-based safety specialist for Texas Instruments Inc. 

“We are about to have a mass exodus and that’s going to create a vacuum putting more workers at risk,” she said. 

Adopting different communications styles for different generations could be key and employers should consider different safety incentives for a new class of workers, according to experts. 

“Using different modalities of communication...you may be able to reach all populations just by changing the way that you interact with your employees,” said Ms. Staab. 

To prevent injuries, employers should make sure to train this new class of workers and avoid assumptions that they will already have the same knowledge that the past generation of workers held, experts say. 

“You can’t have the expectation that a 20-something is going to come to you knowing how to do significant mechanical work, you have ramp up and do that training yourself... you can’t expect millennials to go out and get that training on their own before they come to you,” said Adele Abrams, Beltsville, Maryland-based CEO of Law Office of Adele L. Abrams P.C. “That is a skill area that you going to have to emphasize.”