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Generation gaps challenge safety

Posted On: Nov. 6, 2017 12:00 AM CST

Changing demographics and aging workforces may complicate employer efforts to create effective safety cultures.

Employers may have to use different methods to communicate about workplace safety to protect their multigenerational workforces, but they shouldn’t get too caught up in stereotypes about the different generations, according to experts.

“It’s something that affects every employer, but probably some employers to a greater degree than others depending on the industry,” said John Dony, Itasca, Illinois-based director of the Campbell Institute and environmental, health, safety and sustainability at the National Safety Council. “For example, we see this in industries like manufacturing where the workforce tends to have aged in place with the work and you have a median age in some facilities that is creeping up into the mid to late 50s. The aging in place has begun to hit organizations hard.”

Along with an aging workforce, there are multiple generations of workers that currently make up the U.S. workplace, including baby boomers, Generation X and millennials.

The 2008 economic downturn in the United States is one of the biggest contributing factors to why baby boomers who have passed retirement age continue to work, experts say.

“That downturn ended up impacting a lot of retirement plans, and as a result, a number of baby boomers that were set to retire decided to stay in the workforce and continue earning money so that when the markets rebounded they would be able to retire in comfort and maintain a quality of life,” said Peter Sullivan, Houston-based manager in the plant practice of Accenture Asset and Operations Services at Accenture Consulting.

This generation of workers often has knowledge on how to run things safely due to their years of experience in the workplace, according to Mr. Sullivan. When this knowledge leaves with these workers upon retirement, experts say it becomes difficult for employers to reacquire it, creating a knowledge gap.

By 2025, it is projected that millennials will make up approximately 75% of the global workforce, which represents a significant population within the workforce, Mr. Sullivan said. Complicating the demographic shift is the retirement of the baby boomer generation, many of whom have been at their current employers for years, if not decades, he said.

“They have this profound sense of loyalty in how to run their business ... in how to do it safely that has often gone undocumented within policies, procedures and training,” Mr. Sullivan said. “As they are getting ready to retire and as they are walking out the door they are taking this knowledge with them.” These generations that occupy the workplace have different expectations when it comes to communication and employers must address this to establish an effective workplace safety culture.

“There is some concern that what worked in engaging one generation to be attentive to safety might not work for another generation,” said Mr. Dony.

“Full classes on safety will become a rarer occurrence because younger generations don’t necessarily learn best that way,” said Christina Lincicome, Salem, Oregon-based director, diversity, and inclusion, at SAIF Corp., Oregon’s state-chartered workers comp insurer.

One of the ways that employers can address this is by using e-learning and micro-learning methods for safety training, said Ms. Lincicome. Employers need to understand that “from a generational perspective there are differences in how to deliver information. For example, millennials are highly intuitive. Safety concerns should be relayed showing the best methods quickly and decisively. For boomers, you want to include the entire method and build in time for questions. Both groups need a clear understanding of ‘the why’ in the safety approach,” she said.

“They are focused on the effect of things and how that is going to impact things. If you want to make a change in the workplace, if we can illustrate to them how that is going to have an impact ... they are more willing to adapt to that workplace safety issue,” said Tracey Cekada, Indiana, Pennsylvania-based associate professor, safety sciences department, at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Pairing generations together has been successful in addressing workplace safety.

“Millennials bring intuitive problem-solving approaches while boomers carry the social and institutional knowledge. These two can create new approaches by leveraging the best in each other. Generation X is generally excellent at project management. They have been referred to as the latch-key generation and understand what it is like to work alone. They excel in productivity and creativity when you give them a charge, a deadline, and leave them alone,” said Ms. Lincicome.

Considering what works best for different workers is important when employers decide how to address safety issues but experts say employers should move beyond stereotypes.

“The concerns can’t be divorced from that when a new employee walks into the workforce, whether they are 25, 45 or 65, they are still going to need to learn a lot about the risks and what’s in front of them,” said Mr. Dony.

“I don’t think there is that much of a difference as many people would assume,” he said. “I think that ultimately engaging people about safety is about getting to their heart, as well as their brain, and making them understand the value of why you are trying to keep them safe and what you are trying to do. There are a lot of organizations that have done a lot with gamifying safety and making people feel like they are making incremental improvement toward something. I think that this works for any generation.”