Delivering Safety Training for Gen Z Will Require Explaining the Why

As Gen Z enters the workforce, managers must prepare to help them face common training challenges encountered by young workers as well as factors that are unique to their generation.
By: | October 12, 2022

Generation Z, people born between 1997 and 2012, will soon surpass millennials as the most populous generation in businesses. As Gen Z enters the workforce, they face the challenges common to all young workers and familiar to managers, as well as some new factors to contend with in the workplace.

In his 25 years of experience, Edward Sowers, risk management service specialist, Central & South region for Amerisure Insurance, has found this generation to be in need of new training techniques that incorporate instant feedback and on-demand learning.

“Maintaining younger workers’ attention while conducting safety training is especially important because some younger workers may have a shorter attention span and tend to intake information in short bursts,” said Sowers.

A small cross sectional study of nursing students from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH) published in 2020 found that “they preferred, as teaching methods, linking mentorship learning to clinical experiences, online tutorials or videos, interactive gaming, and virtual learning environments,” instead of traditional classroom structures for training.

Further, over 90% agreed they were voracious consumers of digital content — a product of the first true social media generation.

“This is part of the reason we are seeing micro-or macro-safety training being pushed out from employers via mobile devices to their younger generation of workers,” said Sowers.

“Additionally, it is important to ensure that the younger generation understands the ‘why’ behind the safety policies and procedures, as opposed to simply communicating the information because it’s policy or because OSHA says so.”

Injury Rates Among Young Workers

As with other generations, it is generally accepted that Gen Z workers have higher rates of injury compared to their older counterparts.

A 2022 Journal of Safety Research study reviewed this assumption and found complicating factors managers planning safety programs should be aware of, including more nebulous concepts like an individual’s response to hazardous work environments based on their characteristics and how they started work (on a family farm or in “under the table” employment for example) versus less mutable characteristics like gender.

The researchers explain: “Across different severities of work injuries, young males are at higher risk than young females are, and there is a more consistent age effect for males than there is for females, holding job characteristics constant.”

Given this research, generational workforce mix trends could present an issue for workers’ compensation programs and occupational health professionals as the workforce skews younger.

There were about 17.3 million workers under age 25 in 2020, nearly 12% of the workforce. By contrast, data from the Pew Research Center found that 28.6 million baby boomers retired just in the third quarter of 2020, a large increase from the previous year (which could be partially accounted for by pandemic related labor changes).

As this trend accelerates, managers could soon see workplaces with significant expectations for digital strategy in all areas, including safety.

According to a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health review of Bureau of Labor Statistic data, there were 26 under 18 who died in workplace accidents in 2020 and the rate of work-related injuries treated in emergency departments for workers aged 15–24 was 1.5 times greater than the rate for workers 25 years of age and older.

The Value of Mentorship

Edward Sowers, risk management service specialist, Central & South region, Amerisure Insurance

Safety experts know that mentorship can make a huge difference — imbued the mentored with a sense of responsibility and providing the personal touch to learning that develops a skill the safe way, without learning bad habits.

And indeed, the students in the IJERPH preferred the mentorship method over all others.

For Sowers’ part, he sees mentorship programs in high risk industries as indispensable tools for success.

“Mentorship plays a huge role in developing a safety culture; explaining why things are done a certain way and leading by example go hand-in-hand with gaining the trust and engagement of the employees you are trying to keep safe,” he said.

The overall unique management challenges presented by an increase of young Gen Z workers into the workforce and how they learn are often discussed in terms of a lack of accountability, or seen another way, the desire for more flexibility in terms of work hours and time.

“Two unique challenges posed by an influx of Gen Z workers into the workforce are time management and accountability,” said Sowers.

“Gen Z seems to be more relaxed when it comes to time and deadlines; they get their work accomplished, but meeting strict deadlines may not necessarily be their forte. Similarly, holding Gen Z accountable can be a struggle as this new generation of the workforce seems to not be as accustomed to progressive discipline or seeing the consequences of their actions [or lack thereof].”

Regardless of the less desirable characteristics among some Gen Z workers, there are opportunities to create safety programs that optimize a more tech-oriented, shorter attention span workforce.

Guidance published by the Delaware Valley Safety Council cited “direct and constructive performance feedback, hands-on training managers who value their opinions and the freedom to work independently” as key factors to getting the best work out of Gen Z.

“Real Stories” Help Make the Connection

Despite the challenges presented by younger workers, the best safety programs share elements that can carry over as generational change impacts a workforce. These include formalized policies and leading by example, and ensuring appropriate supervision.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s “Real Stories” featuring teen workers who were injured bears this out.

A recent edition included catastrophic injuries like grain silo accidents, as well as slip and falls. The common denominator was the maintenance of a safe working environment, and leadership accountability.

The stories cited Massachusetts Department of Health interviews with teen workers, where the Gen Z-ers made statements in response to a “my injury could have been prevented if” prompt.

The responses were basic safety totems like, “a supervisor was present,” “the broken machine part was replaced,” “the floor was dry,” and “I was helped by someone else.” &

Nina Luckman is a business journalist based in New Orleans, focusing primarily on the workers' compensation industry. Over the last several years, Nina has served as Editor of Louisiana Comp Blog, a news site she started in 2014 under the auspices of a group self-insurance fund. She can be reached at [email protected].

More from Risk & Insurance