The Barriers To Effective Safety Training: Finding Training Techniques that Bridge Generation Gaps

Oct. 10, 2011
As America’s work force continues to diversify, employers are encountering new challenges when delivering safety training to their employees.

People of various cultures and generations process and retain information in different ways, making effective communication a challenge. And when you are training workers to be safe on the job, effective communication is key. Trainers need to find new and creative ways to connect with different demographics regarding safety.

One of the most significant barriers that safety educators face today is teaching different generations of workers. For the first time in modern history, the U.S. work force spans across four generations. Teams are comprised of workers of all ages; 20-year-olds are working alongside veteran workers, some well into their 60s.

Each of these generations has different values and perspectives on work and safety. It is imperative that we understand these perspectives in order to effectively connect with the workers in these age groups. In addition, each of the generations receives and processes information differently. We need to understand this so we can format training so it leads to the best retention.

Let’s take a look at the three most prevalent generations in the workforce: the Baby Boomers, the Generation Xs, and the Generation Ys.

The Generations

Baby Boomers – According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Baby Boomers, or individuals born between 1946 and 1964, represent approximately 38 percent of today’s work force. Boomers currently are the largest generation in the work force, and often are referred to as the veterans. Many of them have been working in their respective trades for 20 to 30 years, some before the OSH Act of 1970 and federal safety regulations. They have seen and experienced much more than their younger coworkers, and are more likely to recognize the importance of safety. However, their knowledge and experience also can lead them to believe they don’t need training, or presume that they already know the proper way of doing things.

On the other hand, a common trait among Boomers is the belief that their work never is quite complete. According to research conducted by Baker College, Boomers always are looking to improve themselves. They are motivated by the idea that they are making a difference and like to feel important. Boomers tend to prefer creative teaching styles that encourage them to think and interact with others.

Gen Xs – Generation X workers, those born between 1965 and 1975, represent approximately 32 percent of today’s work force. While these workers have less experience than the Boomers, they still are very knowledgeable in their fields. Gen Xs tend to be more cynical and distrustful of authority, which can lead to resistance to training. However, they typically are very family- and life-focused, ushering in the idea of work-life balance. As a result, training that emphasizes the overall health and safety benefits to the person, family and well-being is very important to them.

Gen Xs also are more independent and informal than Boomers, and prefer flexible schedules. They consider themselves proficient with technology and enjoy online instruction; and consequently, are the largest segment of online learners. Gen Xs also generally are more results-oriented and like courses that are relevant to their life and work.

Gen Ys/Millenials – Workers belonging to Generation Y, born between 1976 and 2001, represent approximately 21 percent of today’s work force. Also known as Millennials, these individuals have at times been stereotyped as arrogant and self-absorbed. Some have deemed them as high maintenance, requiring instant gratification and constant supervision. On the other hand, while Millennials have less experience than their older counterparts, they are creative, ambitious and hopeful about the future. Having grown up with multiple forms of technology, they are extremely tech savvy and able to multi-task with ease.

Millennials retain information best when they are working in an open, energetic atmosphere where they are encouraged to participate. This generation also responds well to management styles that mentor and promote development. However, they tend to have short attention spans, so training should include variety and brief, to-the-point messages.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Given the differences between these three generations, it is clear that “one size fits all” safety training will not work for everyone. Each generation processes and retains information in its own unique way. So how do trainers get around this obstacle? The key is to be flexible with your training and incorporate methods that appeal to each generation. Blending each group’s preferred style of learning will help employers connect better with their workers, and inevitably allow the groups to learn from each other.

Here are a few teaching strategies that I have found successful for multigenerational groups:

Take advantage of the Boomers’ and Gen X’s experience – As more and more Boomers retire from the work force, years of valuable knowledge and experience go with them. The lessons learned by this generation can be insightful and motivational for the younger generations. Encouraging Boomers to share their “war stories” during training is a very effective teaching method. Less-experienced workers can hear real stories of what can go wrong on the job.

Gen X workers also have “earned their stripes” and have much experience and knowledge to share. Another knowledge-sharing technique is to pair the Boomers and Gen Xs with the Millennials and have them act as mentors. As previously mentioned, Millennials flourish in this sort of learning environment. Boomers and Gen Xs will feel appreciated for their knowledge and feel that they are making a difference.

Integrate new technology – Millennials and Gen Ys have grown accustomed to having instant access to information in a wide array of media formats. Technology has allowed workers in these age groups to download information anywhere at any time. Employers can take advantage of some of the latest tools, like mobile applications and even QR codes so workers instantly can download training materials and safety information through their phones.

Millennials and Gen Ys are very receptive to online training courses as it allows them to learn on their own schedule. Boomers also can benefit from new technology; contradictory to popular belief, recent studies have shown them to be more willing to embrace technology.

Make training engaging – An important rule to any training is to keep the audience engaged. This especially is true for safety training. Regardless the generation, very few people respond well to long lectures and wordy PowerPoint presentations. Using graphics and a variety of teaching tools will help keep all workers interested, which leads to a higher message retention. This especially is true for Milliennials.

Another helpful strategy is to encourage workers to interact in the training by including exercises and discussion. For instance, during training sessions that I conduct, I introduce images to the class that include safety errors then invite the audience to find them and to discuss safe alternatives and techniques.

Another tactic is to incorporate hands-on demonstrations, since most people (regardless of their generation) learn best by doing. A recent training session on fall protection to a group of startup engineers opened with a few PowerPoint slides that reviewed statistics and the pertinent OSHA regulations. The visual training was followed by discussions of the actual field conditions to be encountered and a group consensus of a preliminary safe plan of action. To complete the training, everyone had the opportunity to try on and properly adjust and fit their equipment and to go through a buddy check to ensure the equipment was fastened correctly. This hands-on, interactive approach kept the participants engaged for the entire class while at the same time prepared them for real work situations.

Training multigenerational workers does not have to be an obstacle if you apply the right techniques. In fact, using the strengths of each generation to meet the needs of the others can foster more powerful and meaningful training sessions.

Tony Geise is safety manager at SSOE Group, an international engineering, procurement and construction management firm. Geise is a dedicated safety champion with over 30 years of project management and construction supervision experience. He can be reached at 419-255-3830 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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