How generational differences and varied learning styles among employees can influence a safety culture
When it comes to developing a safety culture, what many electrical contractors may not realize is it’s possible for their firms to impact the retention and success of employees by learning about the unique perspectives and learning styles of the generations of its workers. By embracing generational differences, your company can tap into the true potential of its workforce, turning an average organization into an extraordinary one. The most recent example of how Faith Technologies, an electrical contracting firm headquartered in Menasha, Wis., accomplished this goal is through the success of its safety program.
Focus on culture
In March 2010, the Associated General Contractors of America, Arlington, Va., named Faith Technologies the safety construction program in the nation — only the second subcontractor to win this award.
As a company made up of approximately 1,500 employees, Faith Technologies credits its success largely to the fact that safety has become part of the culture, embraced at every level. Employees are empowered and encouraged to help with process improvement of the safety program on job sites. For example, front-line employees know firsthand what is working and what needs improvement — and the company enlists their feedback to help make critical decisions.
All of this is due to the universal, yet personal approach Faith Technologies takes when it comes to safety. That means treating safety as more than just injury reduction. We all know that for every major injury or fatality, there are 300,000 at-risk behaviors that occur. Traditional safety focuses on eliminating that one fatality. However, if you focus all of your time and energy in this area, by the time you get to the at-risk behaviors, there’s not much left. Faith Technologies focuses its attention on any and all at-risk behaviors to promote a greater balance of safety precaution by approaching safety as both a science and an art.
The science of safety
The science of safety speaks to knowledge and skill; namely, what to do and how to do it better. Traditional activities in this realm include training of tool operation, potential safe job-site working environments, and the proper usage of safety glasses, hard hats, working gloves, and other personal protective equipment (PPE).
In terms of knowledge, Faith Technologies trains its employees on seven categories of curriculum: trade, business development, computers, leadership development, safety, employee development, and high potential. Safety is not only its own subset of learning, but it’s also a component of each of these categories.
Skill is the second science component of safety. Once employees have the knowledge, how do you ensure they are performing tasks safely and with demonstrated skill? There are three things this electrical contracting firm has done to develop skill:
- Conduct job-site audits to ensure employees are using tools and equipment properly while wearing the appropriate PPE.
- Conduct productivity time studies to ensure field folks are working as efficiently and effectively as possible; after all, if people are working together and planning their work, then they will also be working safely.
- Offer a field mentorship program that partners less-experienced field workers with seasoned mentors who can provide personalized coaching opportunities and help them learn best practices that will allow them to develop the necessary skills to keep them safe and help them be successful.
The art of safety
In addition to knowledge and skill, the art of safety is figuring out what motivates employees to want to embrace safety. Traditional programs focus only on the science, taking an authoritarian and disciplinarian approach. This only motivates employees enough to avoid discipline. Faith Technologies wants its employees to actively desire a safe work environment. Because the art of safety cannot be measured as easily as knowledge and skill, success is rooted in the firm’s ability (individually as leaders and collectively as an organization) to:
- Stimulate emotive responses to safety discussions.
- Influence employees to exercise the safety knowledge and skills they have learned.
- Encourage employees to have an active desire to focus on safety.
To do this effectively, one must understand the behavioral demographics that make up your employee base.
For the first time in history, workplace demographics now span four generations, including the following groups:
- Veterans (1922-1943): This is our oldest generation, born prior to World War II. Their values, such as hard work, conformity, and respect for authority, make it easy for them to be disciplined in safety.
- Baby Boomers (1943-1960): This refers to that generation born after World War II. Their team-orientated needs and strong identification of work roles make them willingly want to share responsibility for safety standards and practices across job sites.
- Generation X (1960-1980): This group’s pragmatism and self reliance make it easy for them to embrace their personal safety, but they must be reminded to reinforce this same awareness and thinking in others.
- Generation Y (1980-2000): This generation has just started entering our workforce. While this generation is naturally confident and team-oriented, much like the Baby Boomers, these individuals require a higher level of attention and structure regarding safety. After all, this is the first generation that has known OSHA to exist all of their lives; therefore, they are used to having someone else think about safety for them.
At Faith Technologies, the current generational mix consists of approximately half Generation X employees and roughly a third Generation Y employees, as shown in the Pie Chart.
As we explore the different generations, it’s apparent that each group has unique characteristics and preferences. Equally unique to each generation is its style of learning. To attract and retain employees across the generational spectrum, employers must understand and cater to these groups’ preferences, including individual learning styles (click here to see Table).
Keeping in mind the different generations’ preferred learning styles, here are some of the ways Faith Technologies is instilling desire in its employees:
- Coaching leaders to engage in impactful safety conversations throughout the organization.
- Educating Generation Y on the importance of being personally conscientious on the job site even though the company has a safety department and national organization in place.
- Implementing social media to communicate with Generation Y employees.
- Providing specialized presentation skills training for field leaders to ensure impactful toolbox talks.
- Employing storytelling techniques and use of video clips to bring safety information and data to life.
If you attempt to ignore generational differences or try to appeal to all generations in the same way, you will lack the ability to tap the potential of all employees. However, by embracing these differences and taking a universal yet personal approach to safety, you can ignite a genuine passion for safety in each and every employee in your organization.
Hermans is the director of learning and development for Faith Technologies, Menasha, Wis. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.