Bridging the Generation Gap in Workplace Safety Culture

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Safety training strategies that work for one generation may not be effective for others.People of different ages have long worked together in professional or occupational settings. A generational gap at the office, on a construction site or on a factory floor is nothing out of the ordinary.

Neither is the idea that mature workers and those coming up after them hold disparate views about life in general and their careers in particular. One crucial aspect where they can differ significantly is on the issue of workplace safety culture.

“Safety culture is the shared beliefs, experiences, attitudes and passions of a group of people. A world-class safety culture in a work environment is a way of life and a belief to send all employees safely back home every day—and in the process, help the company make money, showing to senior executives that safety makes good business sense,” according to “Actively Engaging Employees Using Five Pillars of Safety” on EHSToday.com.

Safety training strategies that work for one generation may not be effective for others. Occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals have to understand which approaches and techniques best convey the message of workplace safety to the various age cohorts. A bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety can help them gain the skills they need to ensure a safe and well-functioning workplace for all workers of all ages.

The Generations at Work

Members of four generations currently mingle in most American workplaces: baby boomers (ages mid-50s to early 70s), Gen X (about 40 to mid 50s), millennials (early 20s to around 40) and Gen Z, the oldest of whom are in their early 20s and beginning to enter the professional workforce.

Some analysts include a fifth group they call traditionalists, the youngest of whom are in their mid 70s.

Millennials already outnumber the other generational groups and will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025, according to Executive Velocity, a leadership development advisory firm.

Executive Velocity describes four of the current workplace generations this way:

  • Traditionalists: Currently the smallest subset of the American workforce, traditionalists were influenced by the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II. They value formality and structure, believe that respect is earned, and aspire to stability and consistent, often lifetime, employment.
  • Baby Boomers: Boomers were shaped by Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, and television. They share a respect for formality with Traditionalists, but also derive motivation from the work they do rather than praise or rewards.
  • Generation X: Labeled “Slackers” when they were young, GenXers were “latch-key” kids. As adults, they are independent and dislike micromanagement.
  • Generation Y (Millennials): Plugged in and connected, this generation is used to getting information quickly. They also believe that employment should mesh with their personal values and will leave a job that doesn’t align with those values.

Why Generational Differences Matter to Workplace Safety

Generational differences exist not just in the workplace but among OHS professionals as well. It’s a situation that has significant ramifications for how safety issues are approached in the workplace and even which issues are considered worth emphasizing.

Both in companies and professional organizations, the majority of OHS leaders are boomers, ISHN notes in its article, “Safety’s generation gap.” Their mean age is 55, and a third of them are over 60.

“Boomer pros advanced through their career with devotion and memorization to OSHA 29 CFR sections and equivalent regs,” the article says.

“To many OHS boomers, if a hazard is not specifically governed by OSHA, its workplace health and safety significance is diminished or ignored. This logic gets infused and is hard to remove due to OHS boomers’ influence on their younger counterparts.”

Boomers’ focus on OHSA regulations, the article adds, “hinders movement toward a holistic approach to workplace health and safety – including new concepts such as social responsibility and climate protection.”

Younger workers – including OHS professionals – also advocate for increased attention to family issues such as paid leave and workplace risk assessments for expectant parents.

Millennials, with their growing numbers in the workforce, will soon take over leadership in OHS positions.

“Unlike the boomer generation and to an extent Generation X, millennials grew up in a world that was already engrossed in a continually improving safety culture,” according to “Millennials: A Generation of Safety,” on the Preco Electronics blog. Preco manufactures collision mitigation technology for machine operators and fleets.

“Because millennials were born between 1980 to the early 2000s, OSHA standards and firm labor laws were already in place. So in a sense, you could say that millennials were born into a safety net created by the generations before them,” the article continues.

This generation is well informed about safety issues and not intimidated about raising awareness about unsafe practices at work. They also don’t care for boomers’ top-down, chain-of-command communication style.

“When it comes to safety, this can be detrimental, and for that reason the younger generation isn’t as likely to tolerate protocol when it comes to protecting themselves and their coworkers,” the article notes.

Strategies for Safety Training Across Generations

The staffing agency HTI acknowledges that, “living in a multi-generational culture trying to get the importance of workplace safety across to all of your employees can be a real struggle.”

“How to Communicate Safety Standards Across Generations,” an article on the firm’s website, suggests considering different training strategies for each age cohort – a plan that’s actually more efficient and less costly than company executives might think.

Insights from such an approach include:

  • Taking advantage of boomers’ experience: They’ve learned many safety lessons the hard way and can offer “war stories” that resonate with younger OHS professionals.
  • Leveraging new technology to relate to millennials: This approach allows the company to invest in high-end tech – and lets the younger workers teach the boomers some useful tricks.

HTI also advises employing basic training strategies, including:

  • Offering lessons in clear, non-complicated ways.
  • Creating a working environment that is friendly and constructive for everyone.
  • Designing lessons that contain interesting information so all generations will be enthusiastic about learning.

About Eastern Kentucky University’s Bachelor of Science in Occupational

Safety Program

Eastern Kentucky University’s online bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety is designed to show students how to identify safety risks and potential areas of improvement in workplace conditions.

Industry-experienced safety professionals guide students through occupational safety courses, covering modern trends in employee engagement and the establishment of a safety culture in the workplace.

For more information, contact EKU today.

Recommended Reading:

How Can My Career in Occupational Health and Safety Help the Environment?

Health and Safety of Remote Workers

Drugs, Alcohol, and Workplace Safety

Sources:

Actively Engaging Employees Using Five Pillars of Safety: EHS Today

Generational statistics: ISHN

Millennials in the workforce: Executive Velocity

Safety’s generation gap: ISHN

How to Communicate Safety Standards Across Generations: HTI