Generation Y Safety: The Challenges of Reaching the Under-30 Worker

They're computer-literate, eager to please and products of the MTV and OSHA generation. Now it's up to you to help them stay safe on the job. Are you up to the challenge?

When it comes to under-30 workers' approach to safety and their trainability safety professionals such as Mike Byington of LaCrosse, Wisc.-based Inland Label and Marketing Services believe there is a difference between them and their older (or perhaps the more politically correct description is "age-enhanced") counterparts.

For one thing, Byington has observed that under-30 workers tend to absorb information and respond with questions quicker.

"That's not a slight to the older worker," Byington says. "But the younger workers have been brought up in the 'right here, right now.'"

Their right-here, right-now orientation has made him a better teacher, Byington adds.

"They come up with questions right away, and it's made my training better because I've had to react quicker and have answers readily available after their questions," Byington says. "I can't just focus on training and be done with it. I have to prepare for the question-and-answer period, because we have some very intelligent questions."

Under-30 workers at Inland prefer their safety training information delivered to them in a multimedia buffet of handouts, one-on-one attention and video instruction, Byington explains.

"Some people work better with written [instruction], some work better with video and some do better with one-on-one. We find the combination of the three has been very successful for the younger worker," Byington says.

The same is true at Smurfit-Stone Container Corp., a paperboard and packaging company with offices in Chicago and St. Louis. There, safety training is delivered to workers in a variety of formats, including classroom, video and computer- and Web-based instruction, explains Larry Otten, corporate director of safety and health.

Otten notes that Smurfit-Stone is incorporating more computer- and Web-based training into its safety education toolbox and under-30 workers, not surprisingly, have been quicker to embrace it than some of their older co-workers.

"Some of the older workers are still kind of afraid of that funny-looking box that has a screen in front of it," Otten says. Even so, Otten adds that older workers have been receptive to computer-based training despite being "a little more intimidated, a little more gun-shy" than the under-30s.

When Kaye Love-Dodgen, safety manager for Knoxville, Tenn.-based Denark Construction Inc., thinks about the differences between under-30 workers and their older counterparts, she says "it's amazing that they can be so totally different."

Like Byington, Love-Dodgen has marveled, at times, at under-30 workers' ability to process information.

"My God, look at what they've been brought up with television, computers, Internet," Love-Dodgen says. "They are information people. Generally, you just have to give them the information and they are more inclined to jump right in and get it right the first time."

Growing Up in the OSHA Age

Clearly, under-30 workers are a product of the computer age, but safety professionals also are quick to note that younger workers have grown up in the OSHA age.

Because of that, under-30 workers and their older counterparts have different reasons for working safely, explains Keith Sliman, safety director at Ford, Bacon and Davis, a Baton Rouge, La.-based chemical engineering and procurement company.

"The younger ones come in and we tell them we need to be safe, we don't want anyone to get hurt, and they say, 'OK, fine, whatever you say,' without the experience of seeing what it was like before [OSHA]," Sliman explains. "They kind of blindly accept it."

On the other hand, older workers remember what things were like in workplaces before OSHA.

"They saw a lot of folks get hurt and know the impact of being unsafe," Sliman says. "So they welcome a lot of the things [safety professionals] do."

And therein lies a paradox: While older workers perhaps have a stronger "why" for working safely, they can be a bit set in their ways and, consequently, harder to train than younger workers, Sliman asserts.

"Before I got into engineering I used to teach scuba diving, and I always preferred to teach a non-diver rather than a diver," Sliman says. "When you were dealing with someone who had already been doing it, I had to break all their old habits and teach them new ones."

Denark Construction's Love-Dodgen believes that Sliman "hit the nail right on the head." She finds younger workers much more pliable when it comes to teaching them about safety; on the other hand, it's been "more of a challenge to break the old habits and create new patterns for older workers," she says.

"I've had superintendents tell me: 'I've done it this way for 25 years and I haven't killed anybody yet,'" Love-Dodgen explains. "To me, that's not acceptable language."

Even so, Sliman points out that younger workers can benefit from the experience of their older co-workers even if that experience doesn't always gibe with current safety regulations.

"If we get into a classroom and we're talking about a technique, and some of the older guys say, 'that's not how we used to do it,' a good instructor can turn it into a learning experience," Sliman says. In other words, the instructor can explain that the way they used to do it isn't necessarily the right way. "The novice gets to see the new way and the old way, and it's up to us to show them why the new way is better."

Can Sex Sell Safety?

Nancy Nehlsen, president of Nehlsen Communications, a Moline, Ill.-based marketing firm whose clients include union construction trades around the country, knows a thing or two about getting safety messages across to under-30 workers.

Tasked by the Mechanical Contractors Association (MCA) of Chicago to convey safety concepts to about 6,000 pipefitters in the Chicago area, Nehlsen devised a marketing campaign called "Sexy Safety Stuffers," in which fliers with brief safety messages are included with workers' weekly paychecks. The fliers use what Nehlsen calls a "slightly sexy approach" to communicate basic safety concepts ranging from the importance of wearing PPE to the right way to climb a ladder.

For example, the front of one Sexy Safety Stuffer pictures a young woman, smiling, along with the message: "It's easier to return a wink when your eyes are in your head." The back says: "Wear your safety glasses."

Nehlsen notes that gaining the interest of under-30 workers which was one of the key objectives of this campaign is particularly challenging.

"We consider younger workers when designing any campaign," Nehlsen says. "We have two very distinct audiences: Our older workers who are very print-oriented, and younger workers who are not print-oriented at all. We're always looking for ways to reach them."

The Safety Stuffers campaign, which was launched 5 years ago, has taught Nehlsen some valuable lessons in effective and not-so-effective ways to reach under-30 workers.

For example, printed materials must have dynamic, high-impact graphics and short (one- or two-sentence) messages, because, Nehlsen has found, younger workers have shorter attention spans when it comes to reading print.

"Our kids are so graphically oriented today, because their media is completely different than it was when I was a kid," Nehlsen says. "When I was a kid, we read for entertainment they don't do that now. The average kid today is used to being entertained as opposed to entertaining themselves."

Consequently, where the older worker might stop to read a safety brochure or pamphlet if the headline piqued his interest, Nehlsen says the message has to be delivered to the younger worker in just a few words, letting the graphic speak for itself.

"Information comes to [younger people] very quickly in small segments," Nehlsen explains. "That's what we have to do: Give them the information in ways they're used to getting it."

As for what approaches haven't worked, a previous Safety Stuffers campaign tried to inspire workers to think about safety and the positive impact it could have on their long-term future. Unfortunately, for younger workers, the future is not reality.

"Where older workers might actually stop and look at that, and they're thinking about things like enjoying their retirement and being able to play golf ... kids don't think long-term," Nehlsen says.

Being 'Cool' Versus Being Safe

Personal protective equipment (PPE) manufacturers such as Indianapolis-based Aearo Co. wrestle with some of those same issues when designing products for under-30 workers.

"Our research indicates it's a much greater challenge trying to get them to comply and wear hearing protection," says Marc Santoro, who is the brand manager for Aearo's Peltor and E-A-R hearing protection products. "I think the biggest problem is that you're talking about hearing protection, and hearing damage tends to be the result of long-term exposure. With younger workers, they just don't see that far into the future and don't believe it can happen to them."

More seasoned workers are much more likely to have dealt with someone whether a family member or friend who's lost his or her hearing, Santoro explains "They've seen the damaging effects."

Younger workers, when it comes to wearing PPE, also tend to value style as much as or more than the product's safety benefits, Santoro adds. "When you have the short-term benefit of looking cool versus the long-term benefit of protecting your hearing, they tend to focus more on the short-term."

That's why Aearo's Peltor NEXT line, while providing the necessary hearing protection, includes the three-color TriBand earplug, the neon green Tattoo earplug (which mimics a barbed wire tattoo pattern that is popular among workers) and the Blaze earmuff, with orange, tie-dyed design ear cups.

In the past, PPE manufacturers attempted to make products that seemed invisible, Santoro explains. Today, the trend is "making it an accessory to the way they dress."

"The focus is on bright, exciting colors, to draw attention to PPE versus trying to be invisible and trying to have it fade into the background," Santoro says.

Among the challenges PPE manufacturers face in designing products that will encourage compliance among younger workers is that younger workers "do not like the traditional safety glasses that I wore 30 years ago when I was working summer jobs," says Philip Johnson, vice president, research and development, for the Eye and Face Group at Smithfield, R.I.-based Bacou-Dalloz.

While Bacou-Dalloz's Uvex safety eyeglasses feature multi-layered, mirror lens options such as "Blue Ice" and "Hot Orange" to appeal to younger workers' sense of style, the eyewear also has features geared to satisfy another demand of under-30 workers: ergonomics.

"Bacou-Dalloz tries to design adjustment features into the spectacle for temple length, for nasal adjustment and for what they call pantoscopic tilt of lens, which allows you to incline the lens over a few different angles of rotation so you can tilt it away from your face," Johnson says.

Keep it Fresh

Johnson, Santoro and Nehlsen agree on one important key to success for anyone trying to reach younger workers with safety messages or products: Don't expect the same ideas to continue to engage the interest of younger workers for too long.

"We have to keep the ideas fresh or we'll lose them," Nehlsen says. "Even though Sexy Safety Stuffers has been very effective, next year we'll have to come up with something just as fresh. If they start expecting Sexy Safety Stuffers, it will become very boring."

Sidebar: OSHA Tries to Reach Workers Early

When it comes to getting the safety message to under-30 workers, OSHA focuses its outreach and education efforts on what it believe to be a strategically important age group: 14- to 24-year-olds.

The agency's rationale and that of NIOSH comes from the belief that the youngest members of the U.S. work force face a higher risk of occupational injury due to their relatively limited job knowledge, training, skills and life experience. There also is some evidence that workers are more likely to incur a job-related injury, illness or fatality within their first year of employment.

Among OSHA's initiatives aimed at keeping this age group safe, the agency provides employers with brochures, posters and other educational materials informing workers of their rights and responsibilities. (One such poster says, "Teen Workers! You have a right to a safe and healthy workplace," and offers some general advice as well as contact information for OSHA.)

The agency has a Web page www.osha.gov/SLTC/teenworkers dedicated to providing safety information to young workers, employers, parents and educators. A page connected to the OSHA site www.youngworkers.net provides links to agencies in the United States and abroad that offer youth employment safety information.

The agency also has convened the Federal Network for Young Worker Safety and Health, a group of 12 federal agencies with a stake in keeping young workers safe and healthy on the job. Participating agencies include NIOSH, EPA and the Department of Education.

The cooperation among federal agencies can be seen at "YouthRules!" rallies and other events held throughout the country. Such events, typically held at shopping malls, invite teens and their parents to learn about the benefits and hazards of youth employment, as well as their workplace rights and responsibilities, through interactive games, safety demonstrations and presentations by representatives from OSHA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Employment Standards Administration and other agencies.

Another part of OSHA's mission is to get occupational safety and health information into the hands of teachers. To that end, the agency announced Oct. 17 that it is partnering with Leesburg, Va.-based SkillsUSA, a national organization serving more than 279,000 high school and college students and professional members enrolled in training programs in technical, skilled and service occupations.

Through the alliance, OSHA hopes to be able to "provide career and technical educators and their students with materials, guidance and access to training resources that will positively impact the occupational safety and health of young workers."

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