By Safety Management Group
We all remember what it felt like to enter the workforce, especially the first time we landed a “real” job on a construction site or in some kind of industrial facility. We were handling serious work and earning serious money for it. We were strong, energetic, eager, and much smarter than those “old guys” around us — or so we thought.
Now that we’re one of the “old guys” (or gals) on the job, we found ourselves working with newcomers to our workplaces. While we appreciate their energy and eagerness, we also see that familiar delusion that they’re smarter than everyone they encounter.
However, we know something they don’t, and that’s the fact that it’s not unusual for younger workers to be injured on the job during their first few months of work. As their supervisors, we bear responsibility for making sure that they don’t become a statistic. We need to help them understand the owner’s or employer’s safety culture, and encourage them to take responsibility for their own safety.
Factors behind higher injury rates
Why are younger workers more prone to workplace injuries or illnesses? There are several factors, but one that may surprise is their nervousness about the job. They want to make a good impression, and may believe that employers are more impressed by people who work faster and harder than by people who work smarter. They can become so focused on trying to look good that they unnecessarily expose themselves to risks.
Younger workers also lack the hard-earned knowledge that keeps their older counterparts healthy. For example, most of us don’t embrace proper lifting techniques until the first time we experience a strained back. Their lack of experience means they may not notice warning signs that suggest a problem is ahead. When doing anything from using power tools to positioning a ladder, they may choose unsafe approaches out of ignorance.
The same sense of invincibility that leads teenagers to perform ridiculous acts (you can probably remember a few of your own, and wonder how you managed to survive) tends to be present into a person’s early 20s. Brain researchers are increasingly convinced that the human brain doesn’t mature until around age 25, particularly where decision-making and understanding the consequences of actions are concerned.
Just as important, newer workers may be hesitant to ask questions or raise concerns. They may be afraid of appearing to be stupid or being perceived as a troublemaker. That fear may lead them to perform actions they recognize as unsafe.
Hazards are something new
Veteran workers recognize that they’re surrounded by a variety of hazards. That’s not as obvious to younger workers. While some hazards, such as moving equipment, are easy to spot, younger workers may not recognize the risks associated with working with certain chemicals or radiation. They probably aren’t aware of the effects that continued exposure to loud noise can have upon their hearing, or what bright light (such as from welding equipment) can do to their eyesight.
That means it’s up to their supervisors and co-workers to ensure that they know about the hazards of their workplace, and that they’re aware of how to protect themselves. That may include an explanation of why personal protective equipment (PPE) or machine guards are required, it may involve showing them how to shut down equipment properly, or how to feed materials into equipment safely.
Most young workers have never been in an emergency situation, and instinct doesn’t provide adequate protection. Take the time to explain your emergency action plan and explain why it’s important for them to know what to do. If they see a co-worker suffer a serious injury or notice a funnel cloud bearing down on the worksite, they won’t have time to learn.
When you don’t know better …
In younger years, most people tend to believe that they know more than they actually do. Often we learn best when we make mistakes, but mistakes on a jobsite can cause serious injuries and damage.
A younger worker may not understand why he or she has been told to handle a task in a specific way, so he or she may decide to do what seems to make more sense. That imaginative approach may actually expose the worker to a greater risk of injury, or equipment to a greater risk of damage. Supervisors and other workers need to pay attention and redirect the worker as needed. It’s much more instructive to explain why something shouldn’t be done a particular than to simply yell, “do it the way we showed you!”
That’s also why it’s a good idea to assign tasks that match the worker’s level of competence. At times, a task may be a better fit for another worker who has more experience and a better appreciation for the inherent hazards. In particular, new workers should not be expected to perform highly hazardous or critically important tasks on their own.
The supervisor’s role is key
A knowledgeable and attentive supervisor is the best ally for a young worker. Effective supervision involves more than simply monitoring a worker and providing discipline. The supervisor should ensure that every worker under his or her direction understands the company’s safety culture and is aware of the hazards of the tasks they will perform.
Supervisors set the tone for the jobsite. If a younger worker feels comfortable approaching the supervisor with questions or concerns, he or she is far more likely to do so. That’s particularly important where safety matters are concerned. Supervisors should make sure that workers know that when it comes to safety, there’s no such thing as a stupid or annoying question.
In addition, effective supervisors provide positive feedback when young workers are following proper safety practices. That provides a subtle reminder that they are being monitored and express appreciation for their good work.
Consider choosing mentors
Some employers operate formal mentoring programs in which new workers are paired with veteran employees. The older worker takes on the responsibility of training the new counterpart in the safe performance of tasks, monitors his or her performance, and provides friendly correction as needed. The mentor explains proper procedures and offers insight on why the procedures have been developed. The worker will realize that it’s not just a matter of “these are the rules.”
Building a relationship with a mentor gives the new worker the confidence to ask “stupid” questions. When he or she encounters a situation that doesn’t appears to be safe, he or she will be more likely to ask about the proper action to take. That alone will go a long way toward making the worksite a safer place and ensuring that the new worker doesn’t become one of those who suffers an injury in the first year of work. That’s a great way to begin a career.