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Health & Saftey of Immigrant Workforce

December 08, 2014, 12:00 PM
Health & Safety of Immigrant Workers
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The United States workforce, like the population in general, is becoming more ethnically diverse. “We are and always will be a nation of immigrants,” President Obama stated recently in announcing his initiative on immigration reform. The Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project estimates that immigrants will make up roughly 23% of adults of working age in 2050, up from 15% in 2005 (Passel & Cohn, 2008). It is also predicted that immigrants and their children will make up 83% of the growth in the working age population of the U.S. during this same time period (Congressional Budget Office, 2005). Immigration from Latin America to the U.S. has grown dramatically over the past 2 decades and will figure prominently in these numbers. Currently, about 18 million Latino immigrants live in the U.S. (Batalova & Terrazas, 2010).

Latino workers suffer significantly higher rates of workplace fatalities (5.0 per 100,000 workers) than all workers combined (4.0), non-Latino white workers (4.0) or non-Latino black workers (3.7) (Cierpich, Styles, Harrison, et al., 2008). Considered alone, Latino immigrants to the U.S. have a workplace fatality rate of 5.9 per 100,000 which is almost 50% higher than the rate for all workers (4.0). In 2013, two-thirds of work-related deaths among Latinos were among foreign-born individuals, up from slightly more than half in 1992. These data suggest that fatalities among immigrant workers may be the driving force behind the elevated rates of workplace injuries and illnesses among Latinos in the U.S.

According to the BLS 2013 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, Hispanic or Latino workers were the only racial/ethnic group with an increase in workplace fatalities in 2013. The 797 Hispanic or Latino worker deaths constituted the highest total since 2008 and a 7 percent increase over 2012.

What can we do to improve safety and health among immigrant populations? To remain safe, effective, and competitive, companies must understand the diversity that currently exists in the workforce and how workers of different backgrounds approach on-the-job safety.

We have summarized key factors for improving safety and health of immigrant workers below. More details can be found in the article “Safety & the Diverse Workforce Lessons from NIOSH’s Work with Latino Immigrants” published earlier in the year in Professional Safety.

Knowledge as a Barrier to Safety

Many immigrants take jobs in industries unfamiliar to them when they come to the US. As such workplace safety training is critical. However, immigrant workers frequently report not receiving any safety training on the job and the training that they do receive can be of poor quality.

Therefore, determining effective ways to provide safety training to immigrant workers is an essential step in reducing occupational health disparities (O’Connor, Flynn, Weinstock, et al., 2011). Such efforts must go beyond simple translations of existing English-language materials; the format, content and messages should be customized for the target audience (Brunette, 2005).

Language as a Barrier to Safety

Language differences between immigrant workers and their supervisors and coworkers are one of the most frequently cited challenges companies face in promoting safety among immigrant workers (Gany, et al., 2011). This is particularly common in areas of the U.S. that have little to no bilingual infrastructure (Gouveia & Saenz, 2000; Pew Hispanic Center, 2005). Developing a bilingual capacity within an organization, either through training or hiring, will become increasingly important in economic sectors with high immigrant participation such as the construction and service sectors.

Cultural Differences as Barriers to Safety

Cultural factors that may affect safety at work include: how immigrants understand work and their relationship to their coworkers and employers; how these understandings compare to their native-country experiences; how they perceive the dangers at work relative to other risks they face each day (for example unemployment or deportation); how they adapt to workplace dangers; and how these understandings are similar and different from other groups of workers. For example, a study of Latino immigrant workers in Chicago, IL showed that workers’ behaviors reflected a culture that placed a high value on hard work and being perceived as such by their employer (Gomberg-Munoz, 2010). These workers were observed making overt demonstrations of their productivity to curry favor with employers and cultivate a reputation as better employees, which led to a competitive edge in the labor market relative to U.S.-born workers. While this strategy may prove effective in securing employment, it can lead to an increased risk of injury over time. Employers seeking to create a safe work environment must recognize these evolving value systems and adaptations so they can be addressed during training or in one-on-one interactions.

Another common mistake is for managers and institutions to focus on the immigrant’s culture without examining or accounting for the culture of the organization or that of workers from the dominant cultural group. It is important for organizations to develop an understanding of their own internal culture and the degree to which relying on “the way we do things here” may inadvertently exclude workers from different backgrounds. Understanding and overcoming cultural barriers to safety requires sensitivity to the different cultural backgrounds of the employees in any given company, knowledge of the organizational culture, and an appreciation of where these may hinder or facilitate a common understanding and practice.

Social Structures as a Barrier to Safety

Effective communication and training and improved cultural understanding are not the only factors involved in improving safety for a diverse workforce. Structural realities contribute to occupational health inequities for immigrant workers as well. Structural realities are shaped by laws, policies and practices, such as large macroeconomic trends like globalization (Siqueira, Gaydos, Monforton, et al., 2013); systemic discrimination such as racism (Okechukwu, Souza, Davis, de Castro, 2014; Krieger, 2010; Krieger, Waterman, Hartman, et al., 2006); and industry practices, such as a growing reliance on temporary workers (Landsbergis, Grzywacz & LaMontagne, 2014). Eliminating structural barriers often requires changes in policies and practices at levels beyond that of the individual worker or organization (e.g., industry, federal government, international regulatory body). While individual workers or organizations can advocate over time for structural change to eliminate barriers to safety, they often can take short-term actions to mitigate the effects of structural barriers on safety.

One example is the structural barrier to obtaining proper-fitting safety equipment for diverse workers. Many PPE specifications in the U.S. are based on measurements taken from military male recruits in the U.S. during the 1950s to 1970s (Spahr, Kau, Hsiao, et al., 2003). These data do not account for the range of body shapes and sizes of the modern civilian workforce and, consequently, structurally exclude women, nonwhites and individuals with unique body sizes or shapes (Hsiao, Friess, Bradtmiller, et al., 2009). Current initiatives are focused on developing better methods to collect anthropometric data and ensure that datasets used to design PPE are more inclusive (see http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npptl/topics/respirators/headforms/).

Formative research by NIOSH suggests that alternative-sized PPE (PPE designed for women and unisex PPE) may be more widely available than previously thought; Poor advertising and restrictive (e.g. bulk) purchasing policies within organizations, however, often prevent the alternative-sized PPE from reaching workers who might benefit from it (DeLaney, 2012). Updating the anthropometric databases and creating better fitting PPE will take time. In the short-term individual companies can take action to investigate what alternative-sized PPE is currently available and how they can adapt their purchasing procedures to make it more accessible to their workforce.

Conclusion

To remain effective, competitive and safe organizations must ensure that they have the internal capacity to successfully manage employees from an increasingly diverse workforce. Safety professionals are called on to develop and implement safety programs that account for this diversity. To keep all its workers safe and healthy, a company must understand the diversity that currently exists in the workforce, how workers approach on-the-job safety, and develop a plan to overcome barriers that exist. Efforts to create institutional capacity to effectively work with a diverse workforce require both short and long term planning in key areas such as personnel, program, and partnerships. Some key questions to ask as you evaluate your company’s institutional capacity include:

  1. How has your company evaluated its capacity to respond to the demographic changes in the workforce and how can it systematically fill the gaps it identifies (e.g. bilingual infrastructure, PPE fit)?
  2. Are the current practices and policies at the company inclusive of the current workforce? What can be done to ensure that the policies can adapt to the changing workforce?
  3. How does your organization identify possible barriers to safety that workers from different backgrounds face at work? What internal and external resources or organizations exist to help your organization address these barriers?
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