Office Safety Tips Feature story for NSC.org home Safety culture Aging workers

Safe at any age

Effective messaging for a multigenerational workforce

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Is age really just a number? It certainly matters less than it used to when it comes to employment, as more workers are delaying retirement for financial or other reasons. A Pew Research Center analysis of federal employment data found that the proportion of Americans 65 or older who work full- or part-time has increased to 18.8 percent as of May 2016 from 12.8 percent in May 2000.

“The idea that you retire at 60 or 65 has gone out the window,” said Adele Abrams. Abrams is an attorney and safety professional who provides employers nationwide with representation in OSHA and Mine Safety and Health Administration litigation, as well as safety training, compliance assistance and program development. “So you have people who are 70 or 75 years old still working, in some cases in heavy industrial jobs.”

The result of this increase in career longevity is that today’s workforce includes a greater range of age groups – four generations of workers who grew up in different eras and bring a variety of experience levels, knowledge bases and cultures to the job.

The challenge for safety professionals is to deliver messaging that effectively can reach this diverse group of workers, regardless of their age or stage of life. Although it’s important to recognize that every individual is unique and likely to defy simple stereotypes, safety professionals should keep in mind some age-related trends:

The physical effects of aging. As workers begin to stay in their jobs into their late 60s and even 70s, safety professionals must consider ways to minimize the likelihood of injury resulting from changes in health or physical abilities.

“Especially in manual labor or highly physical jobs, we just don’t have precedents of how to support people in successfully maintaining their ability to work as they reach those older ages,” said Jennifer Rineer, a research scientist in workplace health and safety for RTI International and a member of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. “So, it’s important to check in with people throughout their careers about what kinds of support they need to continue to perform their jobs effectively. Is the same job they started years ago still feasible for them? Is there flexibility in the ways that roles can be shaped to better suit people’s changing abilities and needs?”

Comfort with technology. It’s easy to understand why younger workers might be more familiar – and thus more at ease – with digital technology such as smartphones and social media than their older counterparts: Many grew up with it, and it’s more likely to be part of their daily life outside of work. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey, for example, found that 55 percent of Americans owned smartphones, but among people 65 or older, only 18 percent owned them. However, once older people adopt technologies, they often become avid users – the same survey found that among older adults who used the internet, 71 percent reported going online every day.

One way safety pros can help workers gain comfort with technology in the context of training is to put them in groups, said Launa Mallett, lead sociologist for the health communications, surveillance and support branch of NIOSH’s mining program and a specialist in training methods, technologies, strategies and evaluation.

“We’ve found that when we’ve had two or three people working together, as opposed to one person on one computer, the person who might not be as comfortable with the technology was quite comfortable with the content, and so they could make effective teams,” Mallett said. “Even when we paired two people who weren’t as good with the computer but were comfortable with the content, they would work together and not be as intimidated.”

Generations working together

Date ranges vary from source to source, but here’s one breakdown of the four generations most likely to be found in today’s workforce:

The Millennial Generation

Born: 1981-1997
Age in 2017: 20-36

Generation X

Born: 1965-1980
Age in 2017: 37-52

The Baby Boom Generation

Born: 1946-1964
Age in 2017: 53-71

The Silent Generation

Born: 1928-1945
Age in 2017: 72-89

Source: Pew Research Center, 2015

Communication preferences. Communication gaps between generations can go deeper than pop-culture references or slang. Differing educational experiences can affect how people expect to receive information in many contexts, especially in training, Mallett notes.

Younger employees may not be as receptive to learning from a lecturer, standard PowerPoint presentation or 30-minute video. They likely are going to want interactivity, small bursts or micro-learning, electronic tools, and interaction with the trainers and with each other. “Those things are just what they expect education should be about,” Mallett said.

Younger workers also may expect safety information to be more immediately relevant. “There’s an increasing desire to receive the information when it’s needed for a specific job or task,” she said. “Think about a job aid, rather than going to a course because it’s scheduled on that particular training session day.”

Fortunately, these techniques can be helpful for older workers as well, even if they don’t demand them. “Good training is good training, regardless of your generation,” Mallett said. “But the older generations have more experience with rote, one-directional training, so they may not have those kinds of high expectations.”

How to reach every generation

Know your audience. Ideally, safety information should be presented in a way that makes sense to the audience, using language it understands and addressing its particular motivations and concerns. If you’re presenting training in a way that the majority of the class is going to tune out, it’s not effective training and employees are not going to work safely, Abrams said.

Of course, safety professionals’ familiarity with their audience often is limited by real-world practicalities. “If you’re onboarding one person at a time, you might be able to customize the training based on their age, their past experience, whether they’ve worked in this type of industry before, etc.,” Abrams said. “However, if you’re suddenly opening up a new facility and hiring 300 people at once, you may not have the luxury of getting to know each worker personally.”

Mix your methods. Because it often isn’t possible to tailor messaging to workers’ individual needs and preferences, using a variety of approaches may be the next best thing.

“When you have a blend of people, everybody isn’t learning the same way or comfortable with the same approaches, so I think employers have to rid themselves of this one-size-fits-all training approach,” Abrams said. “You’re going to have to mix it up, especially if you’re doing longer training classes, and recognize that older employees are not necessarily going to want to be trained strictly through interactive, computer-based methods. For example, I still use videos, which many older workers connect with, but I’ve started using much shorter (seven- or 15-minute) videos as a springboard to break people out into discussion groups.”

This idea applies not only to training, but to any kind of messaging or safety campaign. “You can make an announcement in a company meeting, have a web resource or online portal where people can exchange ideas, and then also have a poster in the breakroom,” Rineer said. “The more you can display the same key message in different ways, the more likely it is to reach a greater number of employees.”

Avoid harmful stereotypes. Safety pros should take care not to let customization become discrimination. There’s a fine line, for example, between considering that older and younger workers may prefer to receive information in certain ways and assuming they will.

“It is true that young people tend to be more technologically savvy, but a lot of times, organizations won’t even present online trainings and opportunities to use new technology to their older workers,” Rineer said. “You end up with older people missing these opportunities, some of which may be very well-suited to them. These stereotypes, and failing to account for individual preferences and differences, are potentially most harmful – not only in terms of health and safety, but also career progression.”

Embrace diversity. Bringing different groups of people together isn’t always easy – at least at first. Often, the best way to handle age differences in the workplace is to treat it as an asset.

“People are naturally drawn to people who are like them, so they sometimes experience tension or discomfort when interacting with people who are much younger or older or different in terms of some other demographic characteristic,” Rineer said. “That can make it challenging for people to train others or to provide constructive feedback in a way that is well received. But the research shows that the more you put people who are different together and let them learn from each other, the easier it becomes.”

Pairing the employees who have institutional knowledge with those who have new eyes to see how things could be done differently can be a powerful way to bring groups together.

“Encourage trainees to work across generations and create opportunities that highlight the strengths of the various cohorts – the workplace skills and knowledge of processes and procedures of the older, more experienced workers, and the creativity and facility with technology of the younger, less-experienced workers – showing each group what the other has to bring to the table,” Mallett said.

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