Supervisors prevent injuries by listening to teens who speak up about workplace safety - U of R study

By Costa Maragos Posted: May 19, 2015 6:00 a.m.

Safety in the workplace for teenagers. U of R research encourages employers to get their teen employees to open up
Safety in the workplace for teenagers. U of R research encourages employers to get their teen employees to open up (Fotolia Images)

As many parents encourage their teen-aged children to find summer jobs, here’s something to think about. How safe is that workplace? And if it’s not safe is your teenager prepared to speak up about it?

A study, co-authored by Dr. Sean Tucker, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Business Administration, shows that teens – even those as young as 15 and 16 years of age – have suggestions for how to improve workplace safety but usually only speak up "under certain conditions," says Dr. Tucker.

“We found that teens were more likely to speak up and share safety-related ideas with their supervisor when they also had an emotional attachment to their workplace.”

This challenges two notions: One, that teens aren’t committed or loyal in short-term part time jobs, and, two, that because teens are inexperienced they don’t think about safety on the job.

Sean Tucker

Dr. Sean Tucker is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Business Administration. His primary area of research is occupational health and safety (Rae Graham - U of R Photography)

“A key finding from our study is that when young workers are speaking up at a high rate and they have a supervisor who, in the young worker’s mind, is genuinely interested in hearing about their ideas for how to improve safety, the young worker experiences fewer future physical injuries,” says Dr. Tucker.

Compare that to the teens in the study who expressed safety concerns at a high rate to a supervisor perceived to be indifferent or hostile to safety suggestions.

“Unfortunately for that group of teens their level of injuries were statistically higher than the group that had an open supervisor and were speaking up at a high rate,” says Dr. Tucker.

Dr. Tucker worked on the study with Professor Nick Turner of the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary. The work was published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology and was funded by the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba. One hundred and fifty-five people aged 15 to 19 were surveyed in Manitoba.  

Most of the teens surveyed worked in restaurants and food service operations, grocery and retail stores. This study matters, given the high number of workplace injuries among younger workers in Canada.

According to the Association of Workers Compensation Boards, in 2013, more than 30,300 people aged 15 to 24 suffered from a job related injury in Canada. Among this group young males are at highest risk.

Changing Employers' Attitudes

Many of those injuries could have been avoided with proper job-related safety training and better safety communication. A first step might be to change employers’ attitudes about their teenage employees including the ones that are only around for the summer.

“The findings from our study suggest that employers should take steps to build loyalty among their young workers,” says Dr. Tucker whose primary area of research is occupational health and safety.

To build commitment Tucker suggests treating employees fairly and “wherever possible and within reason, to make the work interesting to employees. You also want to explain how their work relates to the overall work done in the organization. You want to make young workers feel important to the organization.”

“All workers have the right to know about the hazards in a workplace,” - Brad Compton, Account Manager at the Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board.

Supervisors must find a solution to an age-old problem: that is, how to get a teenager to open up to you about potential hazards when the young person is trying to make a positive impression?

“Young workers often want to impress their employers, especially when it is their first job. They might feel they’re just being a nuisance by expressing concerns about safety on the job, if that’s the signal they’re feeling from their employer.”

To overcome this, Dr. Tucker recommends that supervisors frequently encourage and reward (with praise or a simple thank you) employees for voicing safety concerns.  

Dr. Tucker is with the U of R’s Faculty of Business, renowned for its approachable faculty and quality of graduates. Teenagers looking at their education options are encouraged to check out the U of R's program offerings