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Age and Safety Habits: Is There a Correlation?

When it comes to age and safety, the question is: Is there a correlation?

According to industry experts, the answer is yes. It appears that the risk of on-site accidents varies from age group to age group.

One industry consulting firm, for example, reports that occupational injuries most often affect the 25–34 age group, followed closely by the 35–44 age group. The National Institute for Occupational Safety, on the other hand, reports that workers 24 and under are twice as likely to have a construction accident as others.

Even though there is conflicting data in this area, some age groups, no doubt, do present higher risks than others, and who better to shed light on this question than AWCI’s member contractors and their safety directors?

The Obvious Question

The first and most obvious question is: Which age group, if any, runs the highest risk of on-site accidents, and why?

A Colorado contractor confided, “Honestly, in my experience I never really looked at age as being much of a factor when investigating an incident, rather I would examine the actions of that employee.

“However, as I took a look at this I did find a correlation, which intrigued me. I then ran the numbers for the last 10 years and found that the highest percentage of employees with injury claims fell in the 25–34 bracket.

“As to why, I believe this is because, these days, most of the newly hired workforce fall in this bracket. They are now coming off an apprenticeship and no longer have a mentor keeping an eye on them.

“They may also be trying to make a name for themselves and to impress, which may lead to cutting safety corners.

Shelley Sigurdson, safety director at Expert Drywall, Inc. in Redmond, Wash., makes similar observations.

“Ours fall in the 25–34 bracket,” he says. “They have now learned a variety of skills and may be trying to impress their foremen. They take pride in the amount of work that they can accomplish and, as a result, can sometimes be careless.

“They might feel a twinge one day and not report it and then continue their physically demanding work until the pain actually stops them from working. Now we have an injury. It comes down to pride.

“Another thing that put them at greater risk is that the work they are tasked with is usually the hardest physical work. The older guys feel they have done their time and are passing the more demanding work on to younger, stronger men.”

Dick Mettler, executive director of Northwest Wall & Ceiling Contractors’ Association, makes a good distinction between types of injuries: “If you consider traumatic injuries, say a cut finger or muscle, I’d say this happens in the younger age-bracket. But these are also guys who bounce back easily, they’ll miss a day or two, but patched up, they’ll be back on the job.

“However, injuries are also creeping into the other end of the age-spectrum, but not as traumatic injuries, rather of the wear-and-tear kind. Those 30 and younger are most likely to have traumatic injuries, 50 and above are most likely to suffer wear-and-tear. The older guys, though, don’t have as many traumatic injuries. They’ve learned, by experience if nothing else, how to work smart.”

Then he adds an interesting observation: “It seems that the average apprentice age has risen to the mid-20s now. It used to be late teens, early 20s, when construction was a good career choice after high school.

“These days, however, fewer guys enter construction right away, but instead choose to flip burgers while looking for something better. Three years later, they realize that you cannot live on minimum wage, and construction doesn’t seem so bad after all. So, here they come, raising the apprentice age by three to five years in the process.

Kathy Coffey, safety director at Grayhawk, LLC in Kentucky, sees more injuries in the older workers, those aged 50 years and up.

“I hate to say this,” she says, “but as you grow older you tend not to acknowledge that you do age, or recognize that you’re not as strong as you were in your mid-30s. Construction is a rigorous industry, and not too many older guys take good care of themselves. They don’t like to make the necessary life-changes to stay fit and healthy.”

Charles Antone, consultant with R.J. Kenney Associates, Inc. in Massachusetts, observes more injuries with the younger set.

“In my experience,” he says, “it’s the younger age brackets that incur the most injuries. At that age, you feel more or less immortal, you feel invincible—lots of extra testosterone leading to risky decisions. Also, you have less to lose if you do have an accident. You don’t yet have a mortgage, no kids. When you’re only responsible for yourself, you tend to think less about consequences.

“As you grow older and your responsibilities grow, you tend to take a more safety oriented perspective on things. That said, some individuals grow faster, emotionally, than others, but it’s different from person to person. Eventually, however, all learn, and slow down and act more responsibly.

“As a PM, when safety was part of my responsibility,” Antone continues, “I tried to point out to my guys that there’s more riding on what they’re doing right now, and how they are doing it, than meets the immediate eye. I stressed that their livelihood does in fact depend on their ability to operate physically, and that livelihood is not something you can afford to jeopardize by taking risks.”

Teresa Murphy, safety director at F.L. Crane & Sons, Inc. in Mississippi, observes, “In my experience, most accidents happen in the 25–34 bracket, which is when we see most guys entering our industry.

“So, here they come, with no experience whatever. It’s this inexperience that gets them hurt.

“Our older guys, people who have been in construction for 20 or 30 years, both in the freezing cold and in the boiling heat, they know how to pace themselves. Now it’s one thing to work in the cold—you just dress more warmly. It’s the heat that gets you. You need to pace yourself, you need to drink a lot of water. The older guys know this. The younger guys don’t and often suffer heat exhaustion as a result.

“Also, many of the younger guys don’t like gloves, feeling that it slows them down. Well, if you work a lot with metal studs, that’s the recipe for cuts.

“Some of the younger ones also want to prove themselves to be good and strong, that they can lift this and that without help.”

For David Oliver, safety coordinator at Dayton Walls and Ceilings, Inc. in Ohio, he sees those in the 24-and-younger age group being the most accident prone on the job site.

“They have an attitude of invincibility,” he says, “or they simply do not respect their work environment, which translates into ‘accidents do not happen to me.’ It’s all about inexperience, exposure to new tasks and about acting before thinking. A good example would be the 20-year-old who used a grinder to cut a heavy gauge stud while holding it on his leg and as a result cut through and into his leg, severely.”

The Crucial Question

If the 25–34 bracket is most prone to traumatic injuries, and 50 and above most prone to the wear-and-tear kind, the crucial question becomes: What is the best approach to lower the risk of accidents for the affected age groups?

The Colorado contractor’s immediate answer is training—a response that finds agreement across the country.

“Give them the necessary tools through training both in a classroom setting and, more importantly, on the job,” he says. “By all means, give the employee leeway, but verify that they understand and follow the safety rules and policies. You give them confidence by showing you trust them, but you also have to make it known they will have to show that they deserve your trust.

“In doing this, you must be both demanding and consistent with your safety rules and policies. Explain the reason for the rules and policies, and stress that the rules and policies are made for their protection and well-being.”

Sigurdson suggests, “We need to monitor this age group more closely and spend more time teaching them the tricks of the trade. We need to make sure they have completed their safety training—OSHA 10 and/or 30, of course, then scaffold, ladder, fall protection, aerial lifts and personal protective equipment.”

Mettler concurs: “You have to give them basic orientation and safety-training to start with. Most larger contractors don’t even let people onto the job site unless they been through at least eight to 10 hours of that.

“Smaller contractors, on the other hand, have the tendency to put the new guys right out there and hope for the best. The smaller contractor may not realize that a single cut finger can considerably increase his EMR (Experience Modification Rate—the factor that determines the cost of workers’ comp insurance).

“Initial training must include the company rules, what safety equipment is available and where to get it, where the first aid kits are, etc. Also, by emphasizing safety in the initial orientation, the company sends the signal that safety is very important to them, that they care about their employees.”

Coffey agrees: “The solution, in my experience, is better education, better health screening and better wellness programs. Educate the older guys about their health, about aging, about warm-up exercises. A lot of older guys still jump out of their cars and go straight to work, no warm-up whatever. That is a stress- or strain-related accident waiting to happen.”

“The best approach,” says Antone, “and the only one I’ve seen work, is to make safety a company culture.

“This is not something you can enforce by edict; it has to become a culture within the organization. Human beings do not want to run counter-culture, they want to fit in, and they will usually do what it takes to fit in. So if you make safety equipment as readily available and as common as pens are in an office, then you’re on your way to establishing a safety culture.

“Safety should be like breathing, second (if not first) nature,” Antone continues. “When it’s part of the culture, there is no stigma at all attached to safety, it’s in the air you breathe. Yes, you can offer small rewards for a decrease in incidents, say grocery store gift cards, but, really, it has to be a company culture.”

Murphy agrees: “We have to train them more. We have to go over safety procedures and equipment.

“Another and a very good approach is to pair these young guys with older, experienced foremen to serve as mentors or role models. The guys who have been around the block a few times are probably the best teachers of these young guys—‘This is how you do this so you don’t get hurt.’

“Now, you are going to have a few guys who do not like being told what to do or how to do it, but once they’re hurt themselves once or twice, they tend to be more receptive to learning.”

Or, as Oliver puts it, “Always preach safe work procedures so that it becomes part of their everyday routine; also, pair inexperienced workers with experienced workers.”
Dogs and Tricks
I think one can safely assume that the difficulty in teaching old dogs new tricks has not become a proverb for nothing. Is it true in our industry as well? And how about the opposite: teaching new dogs old tricks?

The Colorado contractor says, “The best tool here is reason. Explain the reasons for the safety rules and policies and enforce them consistently.

“I like to tell our employees that we don’t just make up rules and policies because we don’t have anything better to do. They are there to protect the employee and to help prevent injury to themselves and others. This holds true for both old and new dogs.”

“It is very hard!” says Sigurdson. “Most ‘old dogs’ are lead men or foremen who grow frustrated with changes and added focus on safety. When an older worker is nearing the end of his career, he is counting the days to retirement and he does not like changing the way he’s done things for the most of his career.

Mettler observes, “It is tough to teach the old dog new tricks. They’ve been around long enough to think that they know it all.

“An important factor in this, however, is ‘the Power of the Purse.’ By this I mean a $5,000 annual foreman bonus reduced to $1,500 due to accidents or safety violations. That will drive the message home. Yes, we should all act out of common sense and altruism; but where the rubber usually meets the road is how much money they bring home.”

“Again, it’s through education,” Coffey says. “Sit down with them and explain the situation and why warm-ups are needed, for example.

“A good solution is to make them part of the overall safety solution. Assign younger guys to them, have the older guys show the young ones the ropes, make them realize that their experience is in fact very valuable, and show them how they contribute to the whole company by setting good examples and by mentoring the young ones.”

“I don’t know the answer to that one,” admits Antone. “It really depends on the individual. If they are reasonable, you can reason with them, and they’ll see reason and adapt. If not, you’ll have to deploy the stick and carrot.

“The key to establishing a safety culture is to pick your foremen and superintendents from people who are already safety-conscious. We have to sow safety leadership in fertile soil. If you have to beat safety into someone, he or she is not foreman material.

“Now,” he adds with a laugh, “the way to teach a new dog an old trick is to pretend that it’s a new trick.”

Murphy doesn’t think you can teach new tricks to an old dog. “As a rule, you don’t,” she says. “It’s really hard for some of our older guys to adapt, and it sometimes comes down to either/or—either you do it this way, or we’ll find someone who will.

“As for new dogs and old tricks, if we see that someone is a good worker and will have a career with us, we pair him or her with some of our older foremen who have been with us for a long time; someone who can mentor them and show them the ropes.”

“The best way,” agrees David Oliver, “is to make the older guys responsible for teaching the younger guys.”

The Final Question

What age group is the most trainable?

In the Colorado contractor’s experience it’s the 24 and younger group. “They are ‘green,’ for lack of a better word, and have few bad habits,” he says. “A close second would be the 35–44 age group since by now they will have started a family, they have a mortgage, and their responsibilities are wider.”

For Sigurdson it’s the 25–34 group. “This is the age where we know they are more than likely to stay in the trade,” he says. “They have completed their apprenticeship and are now journeymen. They are making a livable wage at this time, typically starting families and moving on to the next step of adulthood.”

Mettler says, “As a rule, the younger guys are easier to train, and those arriving today, whether right out of high school or via McDonalds, should receive as much safety training as possible.

In Coffey’s view it’s the 25–34 age bracket for two main reasons. She says, “The first is that they have not picked up too many bad habits yet, and the other—and more important—reason is that these guys are now entering a stage in their lives where they’re taking on more responsibility. They’re married and have started families—having, and maintaining, a good job has become more important now that they have more than themselves to consider.”

Antone also believes the younger ones are more receptive to learning new lessons. “But,” he says, “you need a pretty well-established and thorough safety orientation to begin with.”

Murphy is in agreement: “In my experience, the 25–34 group is the most trainable. They know that they’re here to learn. Older guys, who have been at this for decades, find it harder to change.

“Also, the new guy is more open to new ways of doing things; they can see that it works a little better.”

Oliver concurs: “In the 25–34 bracket, they are starting to take life seriously and are encouraged to better their lives in order to take care of themselves and their families”

Elephants in the Room

“There are two other important parts to this safety equation,” suggests Antone. “One is union versus open shop, the other is language barriers. These may constitute the elephants in the room.

“I used to work for two union contractors in the Northeast as well as for an open shop in Florida. There’s a world of difference: In an area of strong unions and few language barriers, safety is already a definite culture.

“Then there is also the economic factor, the need to come in under budget and ahead of schedule. These economic pressures also work against safety.”

Coffey brings up the economy as well: “I think we’re all still suffering from the impact that the economy has had on our industry. Too often safety is the first casualty in cutting cost to lower the bid. I believe this is a false economy. You cannot put safety on the back burner.

“Keep in mind that the cost of a single accident could pay for a safety director or for several safety training programs. This is not where to cut corners. You need to stick to your safety guns, no matter what.”

There is a definite (and common-sense) consensus: The apprentice bracket—which of late has risen from the late teens and early 20s to the mid-to-late 20s—does suffer the most accidents. But as luck would have it, this age bracket is also the most trainable, dovetailing nicely with the recurring message: train, train, train.

Train, and, above all, create a company culture where safety is like the air you breathe—something you cannot exist without.

Los Angeles-based Ulf Wolf is the Senior Writer at Words & Images.

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