A culturally diverse workforce can give your business a competitive edge, but requires more attention to safety training to overcome communication barriers and differences in perceptions. Whether they're permanent U.S. residents, naturalized citizens or temporary migrants, immigrants on your payroll -- like all employees -- must be trained about health and safety hazards, accident prevention, reporting procedures and their workplace safety rights in accordance with the Occupational Safety and Health Act. To be effective, your workplace safety program must address specific concerns related to foreign workers: language, cultural differences and education level.
Immigrants represented slightly more than 16 percent of U.S. workforce in 2012 yet accounted for nearly 18 percent of fatal injuries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Maintenance, service, building and transportation companies employ a higher percentage of foreign-born workers than firms in other industries. Restaurants, landscapers, janitorial and cleaning firms, delivery companies and contractors can control their worker's compensation expenses, guard their productivity and limit their risk exposure through OSHA-compliant safety programs that accommodate immigrants they employ. Agricultural businesses employing seasonal or migrant workers also must adhere to housing and transportation safety provisions in the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, or MSPA.
According to "Work Safe – An Employer's Guide to Safety and Health in a Diversified Workplace," English is a second language for 19 percent of U.S. households. Your immigrant workers may speak English fluently, but not read and write it well. Training sessions that rely on printed material or web-based instruction lose their effectiveness when presented in an English-only format. Warning labels and signs alerting workers to hazards can be misunderstood, especially by those with only basic English skills. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has revised its hazard communication standards to include signs that use pictograms and other elements to increase comprehension of safety awareness.
Education and Cultural Barriers
Turning to translated health and safety instructions can reduce work-related accidents and injuries of your immigrant employees. However, their cultural backgrounds can hinder their understanding and appreciation of the importance of following safe work habits and procedures. Their native land may not consider occupational safety or worker health to be important. Non-native workers without a formal education have limited job options and may be reluctant to jeopardize their paychecks by reporting health and safety issues. As an employer, you want to take steps to make workplace safety integral to each job and encourage your immigrant workers to put safety first.
Tailoring Your Safety Communication
Small businesses can use industry trade groups, such as the National Restaurant Association, and nonprofit organizations such as the Construction Safety Council as sources for bilingual safety training. OSHA also offers materials in several languages, including Spanish, Korean, Polish and Vietnamese, and makes a regional diverse workforce coordinator available to speak to groups of immigrant workers. If you prefer to hire a translator to adapt your existing material or a bilingual trainer to conduct classes, Peter Rousmaniere, an expert in worker's compensation and risk management, suggests choosing someone familiar with gestures and expressions common to the cultures your immigrants represent to avoid misunderstandings. Rousmaniere also advised pairing less fluent workers with those who've demonstrated a mastery of the English language, adapting written material to include pictures and checking comprehension with oral, rather than printed, tests.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: National Center for Biotechnology Information; Do Immigrants Work In Riskier Jobs?
- Occupational Safety & Health Administration: We Can Help
- Crawford and Company: Work Safe – An Employer's Guide to Safety and Health in a Diversified Workplace
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: News Release; Foreign-Born Workers Labor Force Characteristics -- 2012
- Occupational Safety & Health Administration: Hazard Communication Questions and Answers
- Population Reference Bureau: Immigrants Work in Riskier and More Dangerous Jobs in the United States
- Commonwealth of Massachusetts: Health & Safety of Immigrant & Minority Workers
- National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation: Welcome to the ServSafe® Food Handler Program
- Construction Safety Council: Training Courses
- Occupational Safety & Health Administration: OSHA Publications
- Occupational Safety & Health Administration: Diverse Workforce/Limited English Proficiency Coordinators
- Occupational Safety & Health Administration: A Menu for Protecting the Health and Safety of Restaurant Workers
- Occupational Safety & Health Administration: Spanish-Language Compliance Assistance Resources
- Occupational Safety & Health Administration: Susan Harwood Training Grant Program
Trudy Brunot began writing in 1992. Her work has appeared in "Quarterly," "Pennsylvania Health & You," "Constructor" and the "Tribune-Review" newspaper. Her domestic and international experience includes human resources, advertising, marketing, product and retail management positions. She holds a master's degree in international business administration from the University of South Carolina.