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The Psychology of Safety and The Gen Y Worker

Pop psychologists have been talking about the Generation Gap since the 1960s when the term first made its appearance in the vernacular.  As any Baby Boomer can tell you, the phrase developed because at no time in the history of this country were the differences between two generations as significant as they were then.

Well, what goes around comes around.  The generation that made history by rebelling against the establishment now finds themselves on the other side of the fence.  Their children, Generation Y, are now the ones pushing the envelope.  But instead of questioning social policy, Gen Y is redefining communication.  They were the first to grow up with the Internet, instant messaging and cellular phones, and reaching them means using a multi-media approach, whether it’s in the classroom or on the job site.

They are also the first generation to grow up in a society that puts emphasis on worker safety.  Gen Y was raised in the age of OSHA.  They have never experienced working in a pre-OSHA environment, and they take jobsite safety for granted.  And although they might assume safety is a given, it’s this assumption that makes them more receptive to being trained to work safely than their older colleagues.

If you want Gen Y to buy into your safety training, it needs to deal with the immediate – not the long term.  Remember, this is the generation that instantly communicates; they are not about the future, but are all about now.  If safety training doesn’t show them how it affects them in the present, it won’t have any impact.

This is also a generation intensely concerned with the way they look.  The ripped jeans and ragged tee shirts of their parents have been replaced with chic designer labels.  When it comes to Personal Protective Equipment, Gen Y tends to regard style as much, if not more than, the equipment’s safety features.  In a competition between looking cool in the short-term versus protecting themselves from long-term physical harm, looking cool will win every time.  Manufacturers of Personal Protective Equipment are responding with gear that is as much an accessory to work clothes, as it is protective.  Equipment is being designed in bright colors with popular patterns. The emphasis is on making Gen Y workers compliant with requirements for wearing protective gear because it accommodates their sense of style.

OSHA, too, recognizes the need to appeal to this new generation of worker in a fresh way.  Recognizing that the youngest members of the work force face a higher risk of occupational injury because of their limited job knowledge, training and skills, the agency provides employers with brochures, posters and other educational materials that appeal directly to Gen Y.

OSHA has also developed a Web page, www.osha.gov/SLTC/teenworkers, designed to provide safety information to young workers, employers, parents and educators.  In addition, they convened the Federal Network for Young Worker Safety and Health, a group of 12 federal agencies whose goal is to keep Gen Y workers safe and healthy on the job.  Agencies participating in this network include NIOSH, EPA and the Department of Education.