Monday, February 10, 2003

New tone needed in job safety


John L. Henshaw, head of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, came to Cincinnati last week to honor Turner Construction for its model approach to worker safety at mobile sites.

But he also took some time to talk about pressing demographic issues facing companies because of workforce changes in the United States.

An estimated 70 million Americans between the ages of 3 and 15 will be entering the workforce in the years and decades to come.

Soon companies will have to deal with the implications of this younger batch of workers on the factory floor, in the fast food kitchen and in the back office storeroom.

As any parent knows, teenagers are by definition a little riskier, a little more devil-may-care, than their aging parents and mentors.

Bad results

That can have disastrous consequences for companies and for the younger worker.

OSHA compiled some troubling statistics about teen employment.

Annually, about 77,000 teen workers make a work-related trip to the emergency room.

Of those, 77 will be teen fatalities caused by an on-the-job accident.

As this bulging demographic group moves toward the workplace, companies will have to take extra steps to protect young workers, Henshaw said.

Youth orientation

That may include finding younger spokespersons to reach the nation's youth.

"Most of our training materials, most of our communications about risks, are usually geared toward people 35 to 45-years-old," he said.

"Not only do we have to worry about younger workers. We are also getting more older employees, people who may have thought they could retire and now they're working again."

Mentoring, on-the-job guidance and other communications with younger workers will probably have to embrace a Y-generation approach.

"It's not going to be having Joe Toolbox there talking about something and he's 35-years-old," Henshaw said.

"It might be Britney Spears who is doing the talking.

"You have to have the right person talking to the right audience."

Another new concern involving worker safety is driver sleeplessness and the threat to innocent drivers and their passengers on interstates, suburban highways and city and neighborhood streets.

Companies will have to find the solution because workplace safety, ultimately, rests with companies and not people.

"Obviously, companies are responsible for making sure employees are safe. That is their obligation under the law and that includes putting an employee in a circumstance where they will be a risk to themselves or somebody else," Henshaw said.

"That includes sleep deprivation or increased repetitive action. Those kinds of conditions put people at a higher risk."

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