Engaging young workers in a safety culture

Young workers are among the most vulnerable – and handing them a safety orientation binder isn’t enough

The statistics paint a pretty clear picture: Teenagers are twice as likely as older workers to be injured on the job, and workers in their first four weeks on the job are four times more likely to be injured, according to the Institute for Work and Health and the Ontario Ministry of Labour.

Young workers are the most vulnerable, said Jessica DiSabatino, vice-president at MySafeWork in Toronto. 

“Most accidents happen in the first 30 days of work, when a worker has less experience (on) the job. And so young workers are the most vulnerable for this because a lot of the time they’ve had very limited experience, and they’re unaware of the dangers on the jobsite,” she says.

“Statistically, young workers get hurt more than anybody else in the workplace. In fact, this year in Canada, there will be 125,000 young people injured — and those are lost-time injuries, so it’s not papercuts we’re talking about.” 

Part of the problem lies in the way workers have been traditionally trained and mentored around workplace safety practices, as well as rights and responsibilities, says Jeff Thorne, manager of training and consulting at Occupational Safety Group in London, Ont.

“Orientation needs to include those things, rather than just handing them a book or a manual and saying, ‘Read this and sign here.’”

A good safety orientation program really orients the young worker as to what the dangers or hazards are on the job, says DiSabatino. 

“That could be everything from dealing with heavy equipment, but it could also be incidental things that students just wouldn’t think about like backing into a parking lot,” she says. 

“An orientation has got to think about the worst-case scenario, and then relay that information to the students. It can’t just be a glossing over of ‘You’ll be safe because I’ve been safe.’”

However, in many cases, the orientation is not in-depth as it should be when it comes to health and safety, and teaching new workers their rights and responsibilities — the right components often aren’t there, says Thorne. 

“Also, what we see is you need to be able to cater the orientation to kids in today’s day and age... It can’t be done the way it used to, where you just kind of throw it out there and see what sticks — the student or the learner has to be involved. So it’s got to cater to the newer age of learning where it’s interactive and there’s open discussion,” he says. 

That could mean involving elements of gamification, technology or video content, to keep the worker engaged in the learning, says Leo Vroegindewey, founder of White Knight Safety Solutions in Calgary. 

“They’re all into YouTube, Snapchat and all that stuff. So the best way to engage the young worker is to have video for them, and go through lots of video clips,” he says. “Really, you want to give them the YouTube experience. Unfortunately, a lot of companies don’t quite grasp that concept yet.”

Orientations also need to compensate for the fact that young people can be intimidated and hesitant to speak up, says Paul Kells, a Halifax-based expert on young worker safety.

“Any orientation has to compensate for power imbalance.” 

Rights and responsibilities
It’s particularly important to address that power imbalance when it comes to rights and responsibilities, such as the right to refuse unsafe work, says Kells. 

“Every time a young worker goes into a workplace, you have to put yourself in their head. You have to wear their shoes,” he said. “You have to say, ‘What’s this kid feeling? What are they thinking?’”

They may be inexperienced, they may want to prove they can do the job, they may think they’re invulnerable, they might be afraid to speak up — and they don’t want to show that they don’t know something, he says. 

Speaking up and saying no is difficult for anyone, but especially for a young worker new to the job, says DiSabatino. 

“Truthfully, it takes a lot of courage to say, ‘I’m not going to do this, it’s unsafe.’ And you’ll rarely get a young person doing it,” she says. “You actually need to create a culture where saying no is commonplace or where it’s easy. Just telling workers that they have the right to say no to unsafe work is like telling someone that they could fly, in some ways. It’s a nice sentiment, but probably not going to be used.”

You also need to be able to explain their responsibilities in a way they can connect with, says Vroegindewey.

“You just have to explain it to them because often the older individuals will talk down to them… you have to mentor them, you have to show them a little bit of respect, and you have to understand where they’re coming from… they’re taught to question things,” he says. 

“They want you to engage with them, and explain to them ‘why’ instead of just ‘Do this.’ That’s the big difference I’ve noticed between generations on the worksite.”

Equipment safety
When it comes to instructing young workers around equipment safety and personal protective equipment (PPE), it has to begin on day one with the safety orientation, says DiSabatino. Whether it’s safety goggles, coveralls, steel-toed boots or face masks, young workers need to know when PPE is needed — and why. 

“That equipment is not optional. We say to kids, ‘I know it’s not always cool to wear safety goggles, but you must wear them because that’s part of the shared responsibility,’” she says. 

“This is especially important when young people are working in environments where more experienced workers work, who may or may not follow the rules. So we say to young people, ‘You need to not worry about the person who’s been working on the job for 25 years because maybe they’re starting to cut corners. You need to follow what the employer told you in orientation and safety training, and not veer from that.’”

Another key piece in ensuring young workers are following proper equipment safety and wearing the correct PPE is around mentoring and supervision, says Thorne. 

“For me, it’s the monitoring aspect that’s a big piece of the puzzle there, that the supervisors and co-workers that the person works around — especially those that have worked there for years — that they’re able to look at that worker and see that they’re working safely and have a good monitoring process, and provide positive reinforcement as well.” 

Psychological safety
Another key issue when it comes to young worker safety is around psychological safety, says Glen McIntosh, Vancouver-based manager of WorkSafeBC’s young and new workers programs.

“Employers have to have proper policies and procedures in place to deal with and communicate to their staff their process for dealing with bullying and harassment — they need to have all those particular pieces in place,” he says, adding WorkSafeBC is trying to raise awareness of the issue through this year’s student safety video contest, which has a theme of “No Bullies at Work.”

How much attention employers pay to psychological safety issues still very much depends on the industry, says Vroegindewey.

“(In some industries), the problem lies also in the fact that we don’t actually have very strong work safety practices around psychological interactions. We’re very focused on how to get the job done, but we rarely think about the mental well-being of a worker.”

But psychological safety needs to be addressed right from day one, during orientation, says Thorne. 

“In a lot of cases, we see that people have read a policy and that’s it. But it’s not really what constitutes violence, what constitutes harassment, where does bullying come in — so that’s got to be a big part of the orientation process so at least new and young workers understand exactly what it is, so they understand what is acceptable behaviour and what happens when behaviour is not acceptable — what the process looks like, what the consequences are.”

Ongoing safety culture
Even with all the other pieces in place, it’s important that safety is an ongoing part of the employer’s culture — repetition and reinforcement of good safety practices should be embedded in the organization’s culture and values, says Kells. 

“An orientation shouldn’t be a day, it should be an every day for the first 30 days. A young worker needs mentoring or supervision or both. A supervisor can’t always be hanging over someone’s shoulder every day on the job, but an experienced worker, who willingly takes on the responsibility to mentor that kid, and stand on guard and oversee (him) is just as effective, and probably more so,” he says.

The onus has to be on the culture of the workplace, says McIntosh. 

“We see young workers as future leaders, supervisors, owners of companies, so if we can instill that long-term safety culture in these very young workers, then we think long-term we’re going to see the results of that kind of a culture being acted out and lived on a day-by-day basis.” 

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