The Safe Learner

Newsletter articles

1 Sep 2011

Employment Studies Issue 14

Linda Miller, Senior Research Fellow

Linda MillerDuring 2010-11 there were 171 worker deaths in the UK[1] indicate that between 1999 and 2007, while accidents involving older workers declined, the occurrence of accidents amongst young workers (those aged between 15 and 24) increased. Young workers are more vulnerable in the workplace because of their inexperience and physical and psychological immaturity. They are susceptible to peer pressure, often keen to please and therefore less likely to question work procedures. In addition, they often have an unrealistic perception of risk.

Together, this means that early access to good quality safety training and supervision is vital for young workers. To improve the occupational safety and health information given to young work-based learners in 2007, the Learning and Skills Council (the body that, at the time, funded all post-compulsory education and training except for higher education) introduced the Safe Learner Blueprint to guide the health and safety training provided. IES was commissioned by the Learning and Skills Council to assess the impact of the Safe Learner input on young learner safety.

In designing the research we recognised that, while training is important, many other factors also play a role in contributing to keeping young people safe at work. The learners’ own attitudes, the workplace safety climate, and pressure at work can all serve to reinforce or moderate the impact of health and safety training. Therefore, as part of the project we also examined how workplace safety climate, role overload and individual differences influenced young workers’ behaviour.

Three training providers who were using the Safe Learner Blueprint to structure the health and safety training they provided for apprentices assisted us in undertaking the work. Young work-based learners at these organisations were surveyed twice, once in 2007-08 and again in 2008-09, with some 234 learners participating in the first year and 325 in the second. The learners were asked for their views about the extent to which they felt the health and safety training was relevant and the extent to which it could be applied in their workplace. The questionnaire also included measures to assess organisational safety climate and role overload, supervisor involvement and measures of individual difference (conscientiousness, propensity to cognitive failure and task focus).

Importance of organisational factors

Analyses revealed that while individual differences contributed to just under a third of the variance in predicting accidents at work, organisational factors accounted for around 70% of variance. In particular, the research revealed that supervisors have a significant impact on the extent to which young learners see health and safety issues as relevant. With time, apprentices whose supervisors did not discuss health and safety issues with them started to see health and safety issues as being of less relevance.

Several issues emerged regarding supervision of the apprentices. Looking at new learners (those in the first year of their apprenticeship), around two thirds of those in higher risk occupations – gas, construction, carpentry and joinery – reported being left unsupervised.

Perversely, this was a higher proportion than those in industries we classified as lower risk: childcare, administration, hairdressing, where around half were left unsupervised at times. While most were left unsupervised for only short periods of time, seven per cent, or around one in 14 of the young learners aged 16 – 19 reported being left unsupervised for up to a day at a time.

Supervisors who left their apprentices unsupervised were – perhaps unsurprisingly – also less likely to discuss health and safety issues with them. And the learners who said they were left unsupervised were also more likely to report that they engaged in unsafe behaviours – such as not wearing their personal protective equipment – than those who were supervised. Unsurprisingly, those young workers who engaged more regularly in unsafe behaviours were more likely to have been involved in an incident at work.

While there is a statutory duty for employers to provide health and safety training, for some of these young workers the training they received at college was the first they had received. Around one in ten said they had had no health and safety induction at work. Just under half said their supervisor never mentioned health and safety issues to them.

In the majority of cases, of course, even in the absence of health and safety instruction, most employees remain safe, and even when incidents occur, they are largely minor. However, this is by no means always the case, and it is sobering to hear of the types of incidents that are still taking place in workplaces around Britain today. We asked our respondents if there were any issues for which they would have liked to have had more health and safety input: one young man wrote that he would have liked more information about working 

'in a workshop with loud machinery as it has damaged my hearing’

Another wrote that he had found the Safe Learner input helpful because 

'when a lad fell off the scaffolding I knew who to tell'

Another said they had been able to help a colleague who fell from a ladder.

Improving supervision of young

For these young workers and their colleagues, the Safe Learner training input is almost literally a lifeline in workplaces where there is clearly little adherence to safe working practices. It is perhaps appropriate to ask at this point what it would involve for employers to improve the supervision of young workers?

Would it be very costly? We asked the young learners about the sorts of things their supervisors spoke to them about and those who worked in safer workplaces said things such as ‘On a job my supervisor warns me of dangerous places/things’ ‘Safe use of ladders and scaffolds’ ‘What protective equipment to wear’ ‘ensure hard hat is worn at all times’. These are simple things a good supervisor does as part of everyday chatting to their charges, yet it would appear there are still workplaces in which these basics are omitted.

Policy implications

The findings suggest that future policy initiatives should focus on workplaces and in particular on the role of supervisors. The research provides evidence that supervisory attitudes directly impact on the safety of workers. We have suggested that tutors should regularly discuss supervisory arrangements and pressure of work with work-based learners at their review sessions. As learners are more likely to apply information they see as relevant, ideally health and safety training should be designed to be maximally relevant to the learners’ own job – the more tailored and occupation- or sector-specific the information can be made, the better. But most importantly, it is perhaps time to ask whether training for supervisors of young learners should be made mandatory.

Footnotes [Back]

[1] HSE, 2011