Today we discuss the safety of younger workers in the workplace. The research paper was brought about because of a finding that workers under the age of 30 are between 60 and 70 percent more likely to be injured on the job.
While there may be many reasons for this - this particular research paper looks at how younger workers are inducted into the workplace and how they learn about the safety practices and requirements that are expected. The findings are pretty fascinating - especially for people responsible for hiring new employees.
“Learning isn’t about uploading knowledge, it’s about creating a sequence of experiences, and each person in the experience, they reflect on that experience, they learn from that, it leads them on to new experiences.” - Drew Rae
“When we induct workers, it’s not just about knowledge transfer, it’s not just about uploading the knowledge they need, it’s about how do we get them to start taking part in discussions and decisions and arguments and thinking about the way work happens.” - Drew Rae
“The one thing that we maybe can maintain is the formal standards that we communicate in the induction in the hope that creating some of that tension, creates discussion.” - David Provan
“Onboarding a person into the workplace is an investment in the person, so people are maybe likely to invest more if there’s more return.” - David Provan
Griffith University Safety Science Innovation Lab
The Safety of Work Podcast
Research Paper Discussed
Drew: You're listening to The Safety of Work Podcast, Episode 79. Today we're asking the question how do new employees learn about safety. Let's get started.
Hey everybody, my name is Drew Rae. I'm here with David Provan. We're from the Safety Science Innovation Lab at Griffith University. Welcome to The Safety of Work podcast. In each episode, we ask an important question in relation to the safety of work or the work of safety, and have a look at the evidence surrounding that question. David, what are we talking about today?
David: Today, we're going to look at young workers who have just started a new job. It's well-known that young workers have higher injury rates. One of the studies cited in the literature review for these papers from Denmark found that young male or female workers under 30 were between 60% and 70% more likely to be injured at work. I suppose in the industry and in the literature, there are lots of possible explanations for this. Is it the type of work that they do? Is it the type of businesses that people work in, or is it different attitudes towards risk?
One of the key problems is just a lack of experience in the job, the knowledge and skills that people need to keep safe. We're talking about young workers new to the role. Brand new workers aren't as good across all aspects of their job. We know that safety emerges from the way that work gets performed. It stands to reason that if a worker is not as experienced across their work, then negative safety outcomes may be a result of that.
Drew, businesses have lots of arrangements and lots of different arrangements in place to get new workers up to speed with doing the job well and doing the job safely. In this episode, we're going to look at how those arrangements work and what we can do to help new employees learn how to be safe.
Drew: David, I don't know if you can remember your first job when you were a new young worker. For me, it was going to work at a department store. I remember the usual thing where you get sat down in the break room and you're shown training videos. I was then shadowing current workers around. This particular one, they had a haberdashery session, where they learned the correct way to fold towels to sit on a shelf and how to measure out material to sell to people.
Then I got transferred to the store I was actually working in. My very first day on the job was totally untrained wandering around the carpark, collecting trolleys with no gear or safety equipment. It was just that they hadn't arranged a contract for collecting trolleys. That was my job. How about you when you started?
David: Drew, we're going to talk about the retail industry today as one of three industries that we're going to talk about. My first role was stacking shelves within a department store. I also don't recall receiving any training. One of the things I do recall was I was quite tall, and the roof was quite high, and the ladders weren't really big enough. Regardless of what I may or may not have been told in my safety induction, I was the only one who could reach the roof to hang signs. That's all I recall about my first role. Regardless of what I was told in that induction or what I should have been doing, I was there to hang the signs, however, it was necessary.
Drew: I guess neither of us were really cut out for a successful career in retail. I have to be honest, I've got no idea if this story is true. I just must have heard it earlier in my career and I've been repeating it ever since. During engineering school, we get constantly told how little we know. It's a bit of a myth, I think, that engineers come out of school thinking that they know everything. It's kind of the obvious opposite. We come out having been told that we know nothing, and that things in the real world are going to be different.
This story is about a new graduate engineer, first day on the job, spends the first day in inductions and mandatory safety training including the usual message that if you see something's unsafe, don't walk past it. Make sure that you tell the worker to stop, tell the superintendent to get it fixed. The first half of the day is in the office getting that training. Second half of the day is out on his first site being given a tour by the superintendent.
He's there with the superintendent and his boss from the head office. They walked around the site right past to work up a ladder carrying tools, no safety protection, not a safe way to be working at heights. To the graduate, this looks obviously unsafe, but he can't report it to the superintendent because the superintendent is standing right there with him saying nothing. The graduate spent years being told that his own training doesn't really match how things work in the real world. He's got a way up what he's just been trained about.
What he sees right next to him is a supervisor doing nothing. He figures this is just one of those things where the training doesn't match the real world. He ignores it and walks on. Depending on how you tell the story, when they come back in the other direction, they find that the worker is there with first aid and has fallen off the ladder.
Yes, I don't know if the story is true, but I think the message of it matches my own experience, which is that the safety training we get is aspirational. It sets a standard that everyone knows you don't actually meet at work. It's not like a minimum standard where everyone does everything in the safety training. People really quickly realize that the reality is somewhere between what the safety training says and doing things badly.
There are lots of practical things, the matter for safety that aren't in the training. There are lots of things that are in the training that no one follows 100% of the time. New workers are left trying to figure out this space, this gap between the formal idea of safety, and the practical idea of how work gets carried out on a day-to-day basis.
David: Drew, I think that maybe the gap between the way that people are told or inducted for their work to happen, and the way that they experience that work as they take those first few days and weeks in their organization is true for all roles in a company. Some of our listeners might have spent their career in professional roles and maybe you've been told what you're doing—what you're there to do and be given a job description, then you make sense of it over the first couple of weeks. I remember when I joined the organization in a very senior safety role, I think I was at a meeting in my first week.
The meeting was talking about this incident that had occurred and the conclusions that the organization had drawn from that. Being relatively new and listening to the conversation, I spoke up and actually took the action of speaking up, which is a bit different to that. That story may be true, but I spoke up and said, look, I tend to disagree with what you've explained. I think there's leadership challenges that we have that are creating some undesirable cultural characteristics at that site.
Then a very senior manager said, well, what do you know, you've only been here five minutes, and I've gone okay, so this is the way this organization works. It really doesn't want its safety people to challenge others. Drew, I think it's that connection or disconnection between the training instruction that we get when we first start and what we experienced when we actually start doing the work.
Drew: Yeah, and I think as we're going to see from this paper, it's not as simple as the training is rubbish, we should just go with the practical experience. It's also not as simple as the training is good and the practical experience degrades the training.
David: Drew, do you want to introduce the paper that we're going to talk about today?
Drew: The paper is called Safety learning among newly employed workers in three sectors: A challenge to the assumed order of things. This is a Danish paper. The lead author is Dr. Regine Grytnes, Senior Researcher in Occupational Medicine at Aarhus University in Denmark.
Dr. Grytnes has published extensively about topics like apprentices, young workers, leadership influence, particularly as leadership influence pertains to young workers. This is obviously her field of study, looking at this young worker experience. The paper is published in the Journal of Safety Science in 2021. If you look at the actual date on the paper, it's being published in the future. I think it's published in something like October or November, but it's there right now and you can download and read the whole paper for yourself because it's open access. David, do you want to take us through the method? It's fairly straightforward.
David: Yeah, the method is fairly straightforward, but I really like the method that was conducted for this research. There are three industries, or three case studies, or three industries: the middle industry, the elderly-care industry or aged care industry in some parts of the world, and the retail sector, which we referred to earlier. Three industry sectors.
Each case study involves several businesses. I think Drew, there might have been 15 or so organizations in total across these 3 industries, and about 10 younger workers in each of these industries. They spent a few days, between two and three days at each of these workplaces, observing young workers in their first few days of their role. They also did a whole range of interviews, Drew. I worked out about 95 interviews in total, 50 of those interviews were conducted with the young workers and new workers themselves. I think 45 or so of those workers were conducted with managers, mentors, trainers, or other colleagues in the workplace.
They really wanted to see, and experience, and understand how these new young workers were inducted into their work, and then how they experienced that work in the first few days, and then the experience of their colleagues, workers, supervisors or managers in the safety in the work and the role performance of young workers. Drew, what I really liked was the very open nature of the questions that they asked in these interviews. For example, just asking a worker the broad open question, can you describe what happened on your first day of work?
Drew: Yeah. I really actually hope that they publish a couple more studies given the size of the data. All through this paper, there are lots of neat little examples of quotes in sentences that they observed. They gave it a really authentic feel. They do a good job of not over generalizing it. Very often, when they present one idea, they'll say, yeah, but not everyone agrees with these particular ideas. Some other people told us something different. It gets a good feel of the range of different experiences people have in these different companies.
David: Yeah, Drew. What I also really liked about the design, and you can see it from the results, because you mentioned generalization there, is they observed, and heard, and had different findings from different industry settings based on different work and organizational factors in those settings. The tendency to just look at one industry and come up with conclusions and then attempt to generalize those across all other industries, I think this is a good study of showing why that might not be a reliable thing to do with research.
Drew: Yeah, and certainly they found quite different patterns in the three sectors.
Before we get into the data from the paper, I thought we might go through a few of the ideas that they talked about in the literature review because I think these sets some important context. The first bit is just talking generally about how people learn. They start off explaining the very old fashioned view of learning, which is about installing objective knowledge into the learners.
At school, you have knowledge uploaded into your brain, you go to work, you use that knowledge. Now, obviously, that is very outdated, but remnants of that kind of thinking still hang around in both the education sector and in the way we do training at work. It was back in the 1930s that we started to replace that idea with the idea of situated learning or experiential education. The idea is that learning isn't about uploading knowledge, it's about creating a sequence of experiences. Each person in the experience, they reflect on that experience, they learn from that, it leads them on to new experiences.
You can think of teaching not as a job of providing knowledge but providing students with classroom experiences that help them reflect and learn. Eventually those classroom experiences take them onwards into real world experiences, where they continue to build on the classroom experiences, continue to learn. Once you get out into an organization, the environment isn't created by teachers, the environment is created by all the other people around you. Learning becomes like a community process because we're all learning, we're all having experiences, and we're all creating the experiences that other people have.
Some people are a little bit more deliberate about it than others. It's possible to take control of your own learning, to deliberately seek out experiences. Often, that's what happens when you have a mentor. The mentor is guiding you into what experiences you need to have to build up your skills, build up your understanding. Sometimes organizations are deliberate about it. They create spaces for people to either have particular experiences or time and space to reflect and learn from those experiences.
You can think of things like learning teams as deliberately creating that reflective component of learning. All this stuff, whenever we do work, whenever we think about work, whenever we complain and argue about work, that's how the organization is maintaining and growing its own knowledge. What does that mean for young workers? It means that they're stepping into this community. They need to be brought in and become part of that community.
When we induct workers, it's not just about knowledge transfer, it's not just about uploading the knowledge they need, it's about how do we get them to start taking part in discussions, and decisions, and arguments, and thinking about the way work happens.
David: Drew, I think we probably know this is on-the-job training. As they create these experiences, I suppose we're seeing more with different technology applications, trying to even simulate some of these experiences with virtual reality and simulated environments. I think when we think about on-the-job training, what you just said there is we're not just learning how to do the tasks, but we're learning the broader norms, practices, communication, relationships, and those other maybe we call them norms or shared understandings about not just the task, but about the broader context in which the tasks take place in that workplace setting.
Drew: I think a really good example of this that people might be familiar with is if you've ever watched a medical TV show, they get a lot of the medicine wrong. One of the things that I think they capture really well just for narrative effect is the way seeing your doctor will have a bunch of junior doctors around them, often like residents in training. Before they go into the patient's room, they'll stop and have a discussion. They'll say, okay, so what do we think we're going to see? What are we going to ask? If we see this, what will we do? What decision would you make, doctor, as a way of inducting people into the process of thought and the process of being a doctor, rather than just telling them this is how we're going to do it.
David: Drew, learning safe practice. We've talked about learning on the job, we talked a lot about tasks, just in. We haven't talked so much about learning about safety. Learning safe practices as part of the task is really important for new young workers. What does this mean for learning safe practices?
Drew: I don't know what impression you got, David, but for me, it seemed like they almost were talking about safe practices and professionalism, as if at least for things like the middle trade and the elderly care they went hand in hand that safe practice is part of that learning how to do a job properly, that you learn professional standards, you learn professional ways of doing things. Of course, that includes doing the job safely.
The other part of it is in the paper, they call it learning to risk. That's the idea that as well as learning the professional standards, you also learn where the envelope is. You learn what's reasonable because a young worker in a new environment, everything is new, everything is uncertain. You don't know what you're allowed to do. You don't know what you're allowed to do. You don't know what is safe, you don't know what is unsafe. Learning to risk is about learning what to be comfortable with.
They refer a lot in the paper to things like Diane Vaughan's normalization of deviance, because learning to risk can of course, be learning a totally incorrect calibration. It can be learning that something that people outside the industry might think is objectively unsafe. You just learned that that's normal because that's what everyone else is doing and accepting.
David: Yeah, absolutely, Drew. I also referred to Rasmussen's dynamic risk model, as well. Really, this idea of understanding, as we might say, and what we might say again later in the episode about work gets done. How do I take this work as imagined view that might be communicated to me my prior training or trade training in the case of say, the middle industry, or what I've learned at college, what I get told in my safety induction, and what I see the workers on my first day doing when I'm actually on the tools.
Drew, let's run through each industry and talk about what was found and done in some of those different industries. Should we start with metalwork?
Drew: Okay, would you like to take us through it, David?
David: Yeah, let's start. One of the things is they looked at the context of these industries and also the young new workers. Typically in this industry, the younger workers are typically apprentices or they are other skilled workers. They've had some formal training in the work, and what to expect in the workplace, and how to manage the tasks that they'll be expected to perform. They're typically working full time.
Overall, when they get into that workplace as a young worker, only a small proportion of the workforce are young. This study quoted that maybe only around 10% of the workforce is under 30. This is a general assumption that the workers already understood safety because they've had some of this formal training and education. Their focus was to watch and learn the specific technical skills of this job, and put these people straight to work under the guidance of others.
Drew: David, just a slight correction because the author is fairly emphatic about this. There's a difference between on-the-job training, where you go in and you start working under supervision. The more gradual process, where you start off just shadowing an existing worker, and you watch the existing worker and what they do, and then gradually, they hand off tasks to you as you become familiar and competent with them. A lot of these apprentices are just standing behind the work and doing the work on their first few days. They're not allowed to touch the tools themselves, until they can demonstrate that they have been exposed to all of the things they're supposed to do and answer the right questions then they're allowed to have a go themselves under supervision.
David: Thanks for the clarification, Drew. Like the story of the apprentice hairdresser that spends the first 12 months sweeping the hair off the floor before they get given the scissors to cut someone's hair.
Drew: Yeah, that exactly. There are a few different stories. Some of them seem very safety minded, some of them seem very unsafety minded. There's one quote that I really liked that they're talking about someone using a grinder. The apprentice says, I've used it a thousand times at school, but they tell me anyway. Be sure not to wear a t-shirt that can melt or remember your glasses. I know all this, but they just reminded me briefly anyway. The senior people are showing the work and just constantly telling the junior people this is how to do it, this is how to be safe about it.
David: Drew, the example then of reminding the new worker of the safety requirements and then paper goes on to cite another example of a worker drilling a hole in stainless steel while the apprentice, like you mentioned, is watching how they work. The work is explaining, I assume, a whole lot about the task as well as the danger of nanoparticles and other things. At the same time, this experienced worker is not wearing a mask, not wearing safety glasses, not wearing gloves, not using any extraction ventilation.
The new workers are doing all this reconciliation of, what do I do? What's important? What should I accept? How should I work?
Drew: The paper's got quite a good way of explaining that because it would be easy to just be cynical. The senior workers say, do as I say, don't do as I do. It seems to be more that there's this understanding that we all know what the proper standard is. The proper standard is what the apprentices have been taught. The proper standard is what the worker is reinforcing while the apprentice is watching.
There's also an understanding that the way we do work isn't quite up to that proper standard. The workers themselves say, oh, yeah, we're a bit slack about ventilation around here. It's an acknowledgment that you're not expected to always live up to the standard. The apprentice learns both. They learn what good looks like, and they also learn that it's okay not to always be good.
David: Drew, let's get through. Let's move on if it's okay. Let's move on to the elderly, the age care industry. This is elderly care, aged care, and generally the work in this sector is
usually termed low status work, Drew. I don't want to misrepresent this. Is that your term or is that from the paper?
Drew: That's directly from the paper. I think they're trying to give the impression that very often the workers in this sector are temporary and contingent. There's a lot of immigrant work, but the young workers bucked that trend a little bit. The young workers tend to be skilled. They tend to be people like social workers, and health workers, and nurses who've got like really university level training, but they're also a bit unskilled in the sense that they come into this workplace sometimes as students, or they come in and they've had all of the university education, but they haven't had any practical training yet. They haven't had lots of encounters directly with patients.
David: Drew, in this sector, the researchers observed more formalized induction processes. They even had some specific courses related to tasks and how to perform tasks safely, like how to move patients—specific sections of the induction training or course on how to move patients, as well as peer-to-peer training and working under close supervision. Workers were not expected to have a lot of prior knowledge in how to deal with patients or even how to do this task.
There was lots of reflecting, explaining, and discussion. Like you said earlier in the healthcare setting, the experienced worker would talk to the new worker about the patient before they would both walk into the resident or the patient's room together, then they would go about doing their work. I assumed while the younger new worker observed, then after which, when they left the room, they would debrief about the experienced worker on what decisions were made, why they were made that way, and lots of formal references to maybe allied healthcare professions, formal references to professional practices and standards.
Drew: This is not a universal picture. This is the most common, but they do mention that the more temporary and unskilled the worker is, the less of this happens. Everyone gets training, but the person who is already very skilled is going to get more training. The people who are already very unskilled are going to get less training and are going to get thrown into doing the work much quicker.
The more temporary unskilled workers, they very quickly find themselves working by themselves, doing hands-on work with a lot of uncertainty about the way to do things.
The university students get lots of hand-holding for a long period of time. There's investment in their future skills and their future contribution, rather than immediately expecting them to be doing work independently.
David: Drew, the third industry was retail, apparently an industry that both you and I have some personal experience in, which is nice. Retail, most workers are young workers. I expect as you and I, when we participate in this industry, most of the young workers are unskilled, part-time casual types of arrangements, and perform a wide variety of tasks within this particular sector. You talked about collecting trolleys, I talked about putting things on shelves, lots of different work activities.
Similar in some ways to the other industries that we've talked about, but rather than a watch and learn type approach early on, in this industry, it seemed to be more of a hands-on helping out with the person they're shadowing. You may stand to reason that if you're there on your first day and you're learning how to stack shelves as I was when I started—I didn't get the luxury of standing there for three weeks or so just watching someone stack shelves. It was like, this is how you open the box now, help me put these things on the shelves and we can get the work done twice as fast.
The person who might be doing the training may not be very experienced. I think in this study, they said that there was a young worker and now we're being shown what to do by another worker who's been there for one week. Sometimes the experienced person may not actually be that experienced.
Drew: Yes. David, I was reading through some of these stories about retail. The stories that are appearing in academic study, I'm pretty sure I've seen similar stories appear in prosecutions of construction workplaces.
David: Yeah. The amount of instruction varies between stores and obviously between different retail settings. Even in this study, the couple of different workplaces that the researchers were in—in a different store, for example, there was a much more formal process where managers were explaining the task and giving detailed instructions, coming back to check afterwards about that individual task before briefing, explaining, and assigning the next job. Varying different levels of responsibility were given to workers depending on how experienced they were. Whereas some of the other settings were just more of a get in and do the work alongside me.
Drew: They suggested in the paper that this might have something to do with whether it was a discount store or not. They suggested that the traditional supermarkets tended to be better and the discount stores worse, but the sample size is small enough. I'd be willing to believe it's actually just that one store had a really good manager, who was good at inducting employees and another store didn't.
David: Drew, let's just make some general discussion, comments and then some practical activities. What can we draw out generally from these three industries and the findings from each?
Drew: The first thing they say is that in both the metalwork and in the aged care, there's a gap between the professional or what's considered safe standards, and the normalized way work happens. They don't specifically use the term safety as imagined versus safety is done, or work as imagined versus work is done, but it's a fairly similar concept. The idea is that the induction process straddles across the two things, is the induction process that provides you with reinforcing the professional and safe standards. It's also the induction process where you get to see what work is actually like, that almost filters that knowledge, and lets you abandon or at least set aside some of the professional standards.
David: I don't think we're also clear, Drew, is the safety briefing or the safety induction, or the safety training provided at the start of employment, is that the minimum standard? Is that the expected standard? Is that the aspirational standard? I'm not sure we're always clear with our workers when we say that this worker's safety is imagined. We don't know at what level that imagining is.
Drew: Yeah. From what I've seen of inductions ever since, there are often hints that what you're being given is not 100% believed by the person who's delivering it. Then sometimes, there are also hints that what you're being given is like the absolute minimum standard, like inductions frequently have 10 golden rules, break any of these rules and you'll be fired. That's quite a mixed message about when the standard is the bottom or the top.
David: Drew, we just talked about induction and then workers actually then just go and join, for whatever better phrase, a community of practice in the workplace, and they get the opportunity to try to understand what is the reasonable and pragmatic standard for safety that that work group practices day in, day out.
Drew: Something that they mentioned a lot throughout the paper, they use this term community of practice a lot. It refers not just to the fact that people are doing things, but the fact that people at work are constantly talking about these things. They say that being accepted as a member of this community, being allowed to take part in the discussions, being allowed to debate and argue about what is reasonable and what's not reasonable, that's the key to getting the balance between the professional standard and the accepted standard, because everyone works within that space. As long as you're part of a community, you're all holding yourself to a reasonable position.
When you step away from that to somewhere like retail where they don't have the room or space for either the formal professional standards, or the community of practice where they're discussing it, then the new work is just—there's just—this is how work is currently done. The workers learned to copy everyone else around them, as they see it. Any gaps in what they see become gaps in their knowledge. Any lap standards they see just become the new normal for them. It's really easy for the worker in terms of something like in a Rasmussen's envelope, to just work pressure pushes you away from a good standard, because there's neither a community nor professional reinforcement holding you back in the other direction.
David: Drew, it seems like a similar thing happens to the temporary workers in aged care. There's professional standards and a community of practice. Maybe some roles in that sector are a bit more like the former story of the middle trades in terms of the professional community of practice. These temporary roles in temporary workers, they get much less chance to be part of this community because they're quickly thrown into work and they experience it the same way that you've experienced it in retail. I think we'll come back to this theme in the practical takeaways about temporary workers and how they experience their early stages of work.
Drew: Yeah, and I think it's really telling that these workers are inside the same work environment. They're observing the same normal work as the workers who are being properly inducted, but they're not being given that same opportunity to discuss and talk about it. They are just thrown into doing it. It seems that that opportunity to discuss and debate is really important for stabilizing the knowledge.
David: Yeah. Drew, we've talked about on-the-job training. The paper had sort of—there are some general conclusions about the good and the bad of experiential learning. There was a quote that I recall—not sure who it is to say that practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. Do you want to just talk a bit generally about this idea about experiential learning being both good and bad?
Drew: Since the authors point out that, if you learn by experience, what you learn is exactly as good as people are currently doing it. If people are currently doing it really well, then you learn really well. If people do get really bad, you learn really badly. Because it's universal that work practices are never totally living up to the standards, then if you abandon teaching the standards, then all people ever get is this imperfect idea of work.
That's why it's actually important that you teach people even a standard that no one's living up to you. If you're going to expose a new apprentice to the experienced machine as drilling without glasses, or mask, or ventilation, then you want that apprentice to also have received a bit of an unrealistic briefing and a warning about the dangers of nanoparticles. At least that way, the apprentice and the machinist can have a conversation and talk about what the standard is supposed to be and why the machinist isn't doing it.
Maybe the machinist has a good reason and the apprentice needs to know what's realistic. Maybe the machinist is being lazy and by having that conversation, the machinist decides, hey, I'd better be setting a better example, and decides to do it differently. If you don't have the formal standard, you never have the opportunity for that conversation.
David: I like that reflection, Drew, because I was thinking about how do we get this formal induction to as close as match the work as possible that we know that work has done will always be variable and will always drift and adapt. The one thing that we maybe can maintain is the formal standards that we communicate in our induction, in the hope that creating some of that tension creates discussion and reflection in practice.
Drew: That's one reason I've always been a little bit dubious about the idea of let's stop having safe work method statements, let's just videotape someone doing the work. Because if you videotape someone doing the work as they actually do it, then you're going to have all of these imperfections build in. If you videotape them when they're unrealistically doing everything perfectly by the book, then you may as well just have a document that is doing it perfectly by the book.
David: Yeah, there you go. Drew, let's talk about this gradient towards unsafety. There's this suggestion. We just talked about work as done that people doing real work everyday have found this balance between other resource constraints, production pressure, safety, and sometimes we call this practical drift. New workers, they don't make that trade off for themselves, they just adapt to fit in with the existing balance of work.
Drew: Yeah, I thought that was an interesting claim. They don't have strong evidence for it, but it makes sense. On balance, work is a trade off between production pressure and safety, but new people don't know how to make that trade off. They don't even feel the production pressure because they're too junior. They don't know the safety because they haven't been there. They just calibrate themselves to where everyone else is already sitting at the balance.
If you don't have that induction process, you don't have that chance to calibrate with everyone else, then the new worker does actually have to make the trade off. They need to balance the demands of the job they've been thrown into along with the training that they've been given about what safety looks like. They're making trade offs for themselves about what bits of safety they can and can't follow, what's reasonable, what's not reasonable. That's where you see young workers taking really silly risks, just because they don't know that they don't have more experienced workers to compare themselves to. They don't know what risks are acceptable, what sort of risks are silly.
David: Drew, I tend to like a good paradox. I think the world is full of them. The last point we've got here before we jump into practical takeaways is this idea of the paradox of unskilled workers. Can you explain that to us?
Drew: This just seems so obvious and so unfair. If you're a worker who already had skills, you've already had years of training, years of practice, years of knowing what is safe, you arrive in the workplace and you're treated as a valuable commodity, where you're given a longer induction process and more opportunity to learn to the point where the apprentices are complaining that they've already done it a thousand times and they're still being told the safe way to do it.
Then you come in as an unskilled laborer, you've been given no training, no understanding what's safe. You're not treated as valuable. You're treated only as a source of labor, which means you have to be put to work straight away, or we're not getting any value out of it. The people who haven't received any training don't get any training. People who've had lots of training get perhaps too much training.
David: Yeah, Drew. I think that's a really useful reflection, and a great segue for us into practical takeaways. Let's help our listeners with some of the things that we think might be useful for them to take away.
Drew: David, I haven't actually checked these with you. Feel free to disagree if you take different from me. The first thing that I really noticed from this is that the paper draws a direct link between employment practices and safety. The paper hardly talks at all apart from that one example about ventilation, it doesn't really talk about your risks or exactly what the safety standards are.
It really shows that when we treat workers as immediate and temporary sources of labor rather than as people joining our team, then they're going to be less safe. Not only are they going to be less safe, but they're going to be creating an environment where safety is all about just getting the work done under pressure, rather than an environment where people are trying to maintain and uphold professional standards. They just really drove home to me that when we talk about, not about how we treat subcontractors, but just the decision to do subcontracting, or the decision to hire short-term labor, or the decision to put someone on a six month contract instead of a two year contract. That's actually a really important safety decision. It's the type of decision that safety managers need to get involved in if they're going to have control over the environment people are working and learning in.
David: Drew, I do agree with that. I think it's onboarding what we're talking about here, onboarding a person into the workplace is an investment in the person. People are maybe likely to invest more if there's more return. If you think of an apprentice and a workplace thinking they've got this person there for four years and so let's really invest in the training and the onboarding of this person, maybe different if the person is there for a day or a week. I think you're right. I think we should be really aware of where we've got short-term employment arrangements, where we're putting people to work to putting people to productive work quickly, and how confident we are in their onboarding.
Drew: I think it goes further than that. I think just the decision that we're only going to have someone there for a day or a week, that is itself almost a form of safety compromise. There are obviously times where it is absolutely necessary to do that, but there are also times when we just slip into employment practices. One thing I've noticed is that in Australia, we've got this shift away from using apprentices, shift away from apprenticeship programs towards labor hire. I think we really do see the cost in quality of work and the safety of young workers when we make those market shifts in the way we are willing to treat young people.
David: Yeah, Drew. I think it's a good expansion of that practical takeaway. Drew, reflective practice, second practical takeaway. Reflective practice is part of what holds professional standards and normalized work close to each other. If we think about the professional standard around our task, and then how work happens, and we reflect on that and reflect on that against the professional standard, then it probably goes away towards keeping the practice close to the standard. Some occupations like medicine, teaching, and others, but also some trades, I suppose, particularly where apprentices are still working effectively, this reflective practice seems to really help.
Drew: Yeah, and you repeat from this paper that, at least in Denmark, aged care certainly falls into that type of industry where they're doing a really good job of the reflective practice. I think it's something that maybe all good supervisors do or at least should do, but that we tend to overlook it a bit in how we select and train our supervisors. We don't ask, is this person good at mentoring young people and asking rhetorical questions that get people to talk aloud about their decision making?
Whereas having people who are really good at that process, having the experienced machinist who can't just do the job, but can also talk about it while they're doing it, and explain why they're doing it, and give the apprentice tips while they're doing it, and is willing to step away from the tool, and let the apprentice have a go, and then take that over. People with that sort of patience and communication skills are really important when it comes to safety.
David: I like that, Drew. Actually, something that I've probably never thought of to actually look closely at, we look closely at safety professionals, at professional standards or the formal inductions, but I don't recall spending too much time in my career actually going and actually seeing out what did the first two or three weeks of someone's role look like when they first start a position in my organization. What is the quality of that reflective practice? Who is the person who's discussing the work with them, watching them, and providing that space to talk about how it gets done? I think that's a great takeaway, Drew, for all people listening. Do you know how that first few weeks is experienced by your new workers?
Drew: I love that. It's both a takeaway and a homework assignment for the listeners.
David: Don't take it off?
Drew: I think it's fourth after you've inserted that one about go and look at how people experience the first week. I think the other one is just, we need to check carefully who does and doesn't get that full induction process. Are there particular roles that get lots of induction? Lots of organizations, for example, are very good at their graduate programs. They take the graduates on board very carefully and slowly. Who in our organization doesn't get that? Who gets pushed straight into the learn-by-doing instead of the watch-and-learn?
Does that difference in induction match up where the serious risks are? Are the people who are going to be at most risk getting the most careful induction? Are we in fact letting some people in very quickly into risky situations?
David: Yeah, great thought, Drew. Are your formal and informal induction and onboarding processes aligned to your safety risk profile of the different roles within your organization, is a great takeaway. Drew, I'm going to ask you the question since I've got the microphone now, so I'm gonna ask you. The question we asked this week was, how do the new employees learn about safety?
Drew: From this paper, there's a formal induction process designed by the organization and there's a practical experiential induction into the way work actually happens. Messages in the formal process are going to get filtered and modified based on workers' early experiences. That's going to work really well where both processes are happening. We have both the formal and the informal, and particularly where we have an existing community of reflective practice. People not just doing work, but people talking about work, discussing, arguing, debating, making collaborative decisions about work, and inducting people into that community, not just into the practicalities of doing the work.
David: Thanks, Drew. That's it for this week. We hope you found this episode thought provoking and ultimately useful in shaping the safety of work in your own organization. Look out for the episode and the comments on LinkedIn, and send any questions or ideas for future episodes to us at email@example.com.