By Emily Clark, BLR Safety Editor
With American workers becoming heavier, older, and more diverse, what are the ramifications for workplace safety, and what should you do to prepare?
At the most recent conference of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) in Orlando, Florida, demographic changes in the American workforce were a common theme throughout many sessions. In a session titled “Safety Training for a Multigenerational Workforce,” Elaine Cullen, Ph.D., President of Prima Consulting Services, Inc., discussed the safety-related challenges posed by the generational diversity in the American workforce and the steps employers can take to address these issues.
Currently, there are four generations present in significant numbers in the American workforce: the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), who made up 38 percent of the American workforce in 2011, Generation X (born 1965-1981), who made up 32 percent; Millennials (born 1982-2002), who made up 25 percent; and Traditionalists (born 1925-1945), who made up 5 percent.
Each of these generations has different characteristics and work-related expectations, says Cullen, and in order to ensure that safety training reaches everyone, employers must be mindful of these differences.
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For example, while Traditionalists often possess a strong respect for authority and hierarchy, younger generations—Generation X in particular—tend to be more skeptical. For employers, this means that although simply assigning traditional classroom training might be effective for older workers, younger workers may question the relevance of this type of training and be less apt to take it seriously.
Not surprisingly, comfort levels with technology also differ between generations. Members of Generations X and Y tend to be quite tech-savvy, so for them, computer-based training can be very effective. However, older generations often struggle with new technology and may be better served through in-person training methods.
Harness the Power of Stories
Another consideration to keep in mind is learning style. Over 75 percent of adult learners are kinesthetic or visual learners (that is, they learn by doing or seeing), but traditional safety training methods—toolbox talks, meetings, etc.—are often primarily auditory, meaning that the information won’t be well absorbed by a majority of your employees.
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It’s important to design training that engages people of all learning styles, and according to Cullen, stories are one of the most effective ways to do that. Stories engage both the rational and emotional sides of the brain and integrate important information in an interesting and meaningful way. Adults learn best by having experiences and reflecting on them, and stories provide the sensation of having had an experience without actually needing to do so.
To harness the power of narratives in your safety training, Cullen recommends interviewing older workers with valuable experiences to share. For example, have a longtime employee tell a story about an accident or near-miss incident he or she experienced or witnessed that relates to a training topic. You can have the employee speak to the training group in person, or you can use video to record his or her story. Either way, the firsthand account will be a powerful way to drive your safety message home and ensure that employees internalize it.