Rethinking training through COVID-19
With hands-on learning minimized, employers are facing unique challenges ahead of summer hiring
While the COVID-19 pandemic presents specific workplace safety challenges for young workers, consistent and clear leadership and training from supervisors remains key for them to stay safe and successful at work.
Young workers are often classified as those between the ages of 15 and 24, which means many of them are students.
The 2020-2021 school year, like the one before it, was significantly altered because of pandemic restrictions.
It’s important to realize that students may not have had the opportunity for hands-on learning like they had in previous years, said Jan Chappel, a senior technical specialist at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Hamilton, Ont.
“For employers who are used to hiring out of a particular program, they should probably confirm and be aware that students may have not had the same hands-on training,” she said. “They may not have been able to receive it in the past little while.”
The pandemic has impacted specific fields of study differently, but it’s important for employers to realize that education has changed.
Depending on the length of a program and a student’s particular year of study, the educational disruptions may just be a temporary “blip,” said Brad Seward, an assistant professor at the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto.
“We’re training a whole host of students through pretty uncharted territory,” he explained.
“Distance education has been around for a while, but this mass adoption where every curriculum has had to bolt on this new form of delivery means that there will be some areas that might be a little more unpolished than a traditional trajectory.”
Proper training processes
Employers need to look out for potential gaps in knowledge and ensure each worker is properly trained before starting a new task, said Chappel.
While studies suggest that the rate of injury is higher during the first months on a job, Chappel notes that injuries are often more closely related to a worker’s inexperience, rather than age.
“(Employers) need to verify that they’re able to do the job training. Whether that’s formally going through all the training steps or taking a refresher course, that’s up to the employer to decide,” she said, noting that physical distancing and other safety protocols can still be followed during on-the-job training.
Standard aspects of workplace orientation and training, like information about hazardous materials and spills, procedures for operating equipment, or protocols for reporting harassment, should not be neglected just because COVID-19 protocols need to be explained, said Chris Serratore, prevention services director at Workplace Safety North in North Bay, Ont.
“There’s a certain element of COVID fatigue, where that’s all the focus seems to be on right now, no matter what you do, where you turn,” he said. “It’s the same in the workplace and it just creates other distractions…so they’re not as focused on the job-task hazards as they might normally be.”
Equipping managers and supervisors with the right tools to address the mental health needs of young workers is also important, he said, noting that it can be a big concern for some.
Listening to young workers is crucial
Regardless of the challenges of the pandemic, young workers are often more at-risk for experiencing a workplace injury because, in general, they can struggle to voice their concerns about potential workplace hazards.
“It’s important that people feel psychologically safe to speak up,” said Nick Turner, a professor at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary.
Employers need to show their young employees that they are a valuable part of the organization.
“Many young workers aren’t considered ‘real’ or ‘full’ employees by their organizations or employers,” he explained.
Often, this can result in these workers being asked to do jobs that are of a lesser quality than those that are assigned to more experienced workers, said Turner.
For example, younger workers may be assigned tasks that have less personal autonomy or include a greater amount of physical risk.
The economic challenges of the pandemic have heightened the chances that young workers have of working in more physically dangerous situations, he said.
“COVID restricted the work opportunities,” Turner observed. “Young workers may be more willing to go after riskier work.”
These heightened risk factors increase the need for employers and frontline supervisors to be good leaders.
“Young workers may be more susceptible to the peer pressure which may lead to unnecessary risks,” explained Andrew Widdop, an account manager in Kingston, Ont., with Workplace Safety and Prevention Services (WSPS).
That’s why workplace leaders need to take training seriously and model good behaviour.
“Young workers model their behaviour on those that are in their sphere of influence.”
If workers see their employers not following the proper procedures, it will make it easier for them to do the same, he explained.
Great supervisors “take away a lot of your worry,” said Widdop, reflecting on the jobs he worked at while attending university.
“As a new worker, just knowing that you’re going to have someone there just asking you questions and guiding you as a mentor” makes a big difference, he said.
“Providing positive feedback is good,” according to Widdop. “It shows that workers are valued.”
Engagement brings benefits
Due to the pandemic, a lot of training material for young workers and those who work with them are being offered online. This may be particularly helpful when training a generation of workers that was raised in the technological era.
Training needs to be delivered in a way that encourages younger workers to participate.
“It really helps if it’s conversational so that the new workers have an opportunity to ask questions. They’re empowered with the ability to ask questions,” said Serratore.
As much as possible, workplace trainers should avoid an “old-school” mentality where the instructor lectures and the workers listen. That can seem adversarial, he said.
“You’re trying to level that playing field so people do feel comfortable to ask the question. It’s a position of vulnerability when you say, ‘I really don’t know how to do that yet.’”
Part of Serratore’s job is to make sure supervisors and managers who lead training sessions are equipped to do their jobs well. Many of them may be young workers themselves.
“It’s not easy” to create an environment where conversations can occur naturally, he said.
“That’s why young worker education can’t solely be focused on the workers themselves. It also has to be focused on the supervisors and managers that are at that worksite.”
Older workers need to avoid making untrue generalizations about their younger colleagues, added Turner.
“They’re not necessarily more reckless,” he said. “They’re eager to be able to work and will benefit from the work design from leadership and supervision that any of us would benefit from.”
While Serratore acknowledged that supervisors may have to interact with parents who take too active a role in their child’s employment, he said younger workers bring many advantages to an organization.
“They haven’t yet been jaded by all of the other experiences. They’re coming into it fresh,” he said. “A lot of innovation comes from going into things with an unbiased perception so that you don’t have these pre-conceived notions that this is the only way to do it.”
“Younger workers are a really strong asset to your organization so you should be doing everything in your power to make that initial experience for them a good one.”
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer in Toronto.
This cover story was published in the March/April 2021 issue of OHS Canada.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Chris Serratore’s name.