By Lisa Orr, senior human factors consultant and Laura Oslund, senior risk services consultant
A core principle in risk services, one of the most effective ways to support employee safety and well-being and control workers’ compensation costs is to prevent on-the-job injuries from occurring in the first place. A population group that presents a significant challenge in this regard is first-year employees.
Multiple studies have shown (and Sedgwick’s book of business confirms) that about one-third of work-related injuries occur within the first year of starting a job. Statistics regarding the injury susceptibility of those in new roles have spiked over the past few decades, and very recent shifts in the workforce have exacerbated the issue. Employers seeking to protect employees and lower their total cost of risk should consider redoubling their safety efforts, with a particular focus on those new to the job.
New roles, new risks
The factors putting those new to a job at greatest risk of injury are a combination of physical and psychological. First, there is the question of physical fitness for the role. If a new employee has been out of work for some time or hasn’t performed the same kinds of tasks in a while, it will take their body time to get appropriately conditioned —leaving them susceptible to injury in the meantime. They also need to become accustomed to the demands of their new work facility, job responsibilities and equipment.
From a psychological standpoint, many join an organization and team wanting to make a good first impression. They are eager to do well and to show off what they can do. They sometimes cut corners in the interest of efficiency but sacrifice safety in the process. New employees may fear asking too many questions during the onboarding and orientation process, opting instead to do what they know rather than learning the standards and expectations of their new employer and role. For example, a forklift operator starting a new position might say they don’t need any training since they’ve been operating forklifts for years; however, different equipment and a different warehouse present new perils.
The makeup of today’s workforce puts employers and their employees at even greater risk. Increased workforce mobility — especially among younger workers — means people change jobs and fields more often, and organizations have higher percentages of first-year employees in their ranks. Further, the Great Resignation and labor shortages that emerged in the wake of the COVID pandemic have forced organizations to tap into new sources of talent. Employers desperate to fill open positions are hiring people and enlisting temporary/contract workers who may not have the education or work experience needed to perform jobs as safely and effectively as possible.
Safety recommendations for employers
There are many things organizations can do to mitigate the risks for first-year (and other) employees. Here are some suggestions:
- Establish a strong safety culture: An emphasis on safe working behaviors should be embedded throughout organizational people practices and operating procedures. Safety standards and expectations — both enterprise-wise and location-specific — must be clearly documented and communicated, so those in new roles understand where not to take shortcuts and to instead err on the side of caution. It’s critical that management drive the safety culture, leading by example, reinforcing everyday practices and granting employees time for training. Workplace safety engagement should be personal, with a focus on caring for employees and enabling them to return home to their loved ones each day.
- Start employees off on the right foot: It’s essential that safety-related messaging be included in orientation for new hires and those changing jobs within the organization. Employees benefit from strong collaboration between the HR team in charge of onboarding and those responsible for safety and on-the-job training, as well as clearly defined roles for each. It should be apparent to new employees how the organization defines success with regard to safety. And, as outlined above, even experienced professionals who say they don’t need to be trained should receive refreshers on safe use of the equipment they’ll be operating.
- Focus on engagement: Don’t underestimate the connection between the mental, physical and social aspects of work. Research shows that engaged employees in positive work environments are less likely to get injured. In an effort to promote employee safety, many organizations adopted workplace yoga and stretching programs in recent years. Studies of these efforts haven’t directly linked them to injury prevention but have shown their contributions to teambuilding and engagement — which, in turn, support employee safety. Mentorship from an experienced colleague or manager with the applicable skillsets and commitment to safety further promotes employee engagement.
- Consider the role of technology: Many associate technology with distractions that can lead to accidents (like texting while working or driving), but the tech space has a lot to offer when it comes to employee safety. Wearable devices, ranging from smartwatches that monitor biometrics to robotic exoskeletons that support body mechanics, can improve employee health and safety behaviors when implemented effectively. Technology also enhances and expands safety training options, through gamification, engaging interactivity, realistic simulations and more.
- Strive for continuous improvement: Safety training is not a “one and done.” Employees need ongoing refreshers on the organization’s expectations and should be evaluated at various intervals via surveys, behavioral checks and other means to ensure the training works in practice. Diverse learning styles and fresh training methods should be incorporated in any safety initiative; many adults learners gain the most information from a “tell-show-do” approach.
People are the greatest asset to any organization. When it comes to protecting employees, organizations —whether they’re in a fast-moving industry, such as food service/hospitality, health care, construction or energy or in a slower-paced field — must always work toward enhancing safety and quickly bringing new employees into the fold of the culture. The stakes, especially for those in their first year on the job, are simply too high to ignore.