The workplace injury data tells the tale. Evidence says new and young workers are three to six times more likely to be injured in their first six months on the job depending on where they live.  New workers are those who have moved from one job to another either with their current employer or to another job somewhere else. Young workers are those under the age of twenty-five.

This is not “news” to anyone in the “safety” business. We need to recognize the elephant in our room. As a country, we are not good enough at bridging the risk gap for new and young workers. We all pay the price for this. The cost is greatest for those who suffer injuries or even lose their lives because of our inability to deal with the elephant.

That is the bad news.  The good news is these are problems with solutions.

There are exceptional employers who do get this right. More often than not their workplaces are among the most dangerous of all in terms of their potential for harm to health, safety and the environment. Failures or mistakes leading to explosions, structural or mechanical collapses or other catastrophic events can not only cost lives but also damage to property and the environment on a massive scale. So for these organizations, there is no option but to manage every possible risk. The result is zero injury for all workers; the new and young  included.

So that means there are proven best practices already available. The reasonable questions to ask then are:

  • What has been missing for everyone else until now?

  • What are the best practices of those who have already have this figured out?

  • What are the guiding principles that work that will lead us to success?

  • What new barriers are coming our way that we need to account for now?

  • What framework, tactics and tools do we need to operationalize worker employee start-ups better?

Put another way, what are the new standards and actions required to orientate, train, supervise and mentor those who are transitioning to new jobs or entering our workforce at a young age in order to keep them out of harm’s way? The Respect Matters workshop covers this entire area in some detail, but for now I will briefly highlight only a couple of key elements.

First, there are three areas where improvement is required and where those who have succeeded already have managed to integrate them into best practice.

1. Adequate supervision and hands-on oversight

According to a study by the Institute of Work and Health, 75% new worker injuries occur when no supervisor is present. There are solutions other than placing one supervisor beside a worker for months on end, but in principle and practice, consistent and persistent oversight of one form or another is key.

2. The form and focus of orientation and introduction to the organization’s expectations around safe work practices

Gone are the days when someone can hand over a manual and tell people to read it, or start the video and leave the room until it finishes. An appropriate orientation is not just about giving information. It requires being absolutely certain it is being absorbed and integrated.

3. Understanding the impact of perceptions

At its core, it involves putting ourselves in other peoples shoes to recognize where they come from and what they are taking from what we are trying to our communicate. We are all different. Age, religion, education, title, personality type, gender, sexual preferences, size, shape, language skills, disabilities and learning modes: no two people are alike. These differences can generate communication barriers. Some are obvious. Language skills may lead to situations where people often don’t want to admit they don’t understand. Or a dominating personality type can inhibit honest responses from others who are afraid of admitting they don’t get it.

In a supervisor/mentor/trainee relationship, any or all of these differences can distract people on both ends of the spectrum.  Vulnerable people, such as new and young workers or immigrants or anyone else who might be inhibited in some way because they are on the wrong side of a power imbalance are also less likely to speak up when they feel uncomfortable or to take things they are not ready for in order to prove their worth.

As for the future and what barriers are ahead of us, one key consideration is that our workforce is changing, dramatically. Over 20% of our population today is foreign born. This percentage is substantially higher than any other country in the G8. This is a trend that will not go away.  In fact, it MUST not go away. The health of our economies depends on attracting and retaining immigrants. The provinces with the greatest number of immigrants are our most powerful economically.  The provinces in most need of new immigrants are our most vulnerable economically, including the Maritimes. In Toronto and Vancouver, our long history of welcoming visible minorities means they make up almost half the total population. In short, we need more immigrants, with or without English or French as mother tongues.

Canada – Permanent residents by top 10 source countries, 2008–2010


This presents its own safety culture challenges around workplace injury and liability. Whether by law or by convention, the language of the workplace is English or French. New and young workers with mother tongues other than English often face a communication challenge the minute they enter a workplace, even though 75% of them say they are able to communicate in one of our two official languages. Still, signage is in English or French, not Tagalog or Mandarin. Policies are written in English, regulations are posted and orientations conducted in one language as well. There are good reasons for having a common language as the working standard for reasons of consistency and timely action. But far too often, organizations assume everyone understands exactly what everything means without checking out what has been heard, not just said.

Workers from other backgrounds may also have cultural norms they bring with them into the workplace. In some cultures, for example, reporting an injury or a fear is tantamount to a taboo.  Exercising their right to refuse work they consider unsafe is simply not an option they perceive as viable.

Those are some of the areas we will discuss in our workshop, along with the framework, tactics and tools required to get new and young workers safely through their higher risk transition from new to experienced workers. The most important factor of all however is the organization engages in the effort and understands its importance. There needs to be a shared willingness to recognize that things must change, accompanied by a commitment to see that through to its conclusion.


Paul Kells

Workplace Respect and Safety Champion, Culture Change Expert and Inspiring Speaker

Reach new standards for safe and positive workplace cultures