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One of the most striking changes in the American workforce in recent decades is the increase in foreign-born workers. The United States among large nations has by far the largest percentage of foreign-born workers in its workforce.
Employers have become sensitive to cultural diversity but to a large degree are late in adapting their worker safety and health practices to today’s workforce. Smarter practices will lead to fewer injuries and faster recovery.
In 1990, foreign-born workers accounted for 9.3 percent of the workforce. By 2010, that number rose to 16 percent. These workers tend to have less formal education, limited English proficiency and tend to work in relatively more injury-exposed jobs. Roughly half of the 25 million foreign-born workers come from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Federal occupational injury data suggest that these workers account for 20 percent of work injuries.
Low English proficiency, limited knowledge of health and safety standards, and lack of knowledge about the American health care system among these workers pose a serious challenge. The challenge is most acute in five key sectors: agriculture, construction, hospitality, institutions (buildings and grounds), and transportation. However, these workers have spread out since the late 1990s into many diverse jobs and into most cities in the country.
Language barriers can pose a problem, creating an obvious safety risk. Safety training that relies on reading a lot of English and written tests may be ineffective. Safety trainers recommend more interactive, role-playing training techniques.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and several states have invested aggressively in research, building awareness and training to help employers communicate with foreign-born workers.
Google a combination of “OSHA,” “Spanish,” and other pertinent words and a host of webpages appear, some entirely in Spanish. Some states, most notably California, have similar initiatives. Sometimes, help comes from unexpected quarters, such as a recently announced alliance between the state of New Mexico and a Mexican consulate to expedite training in Spanish.
However, occupational safety and workers’ compensation laws include few and scattered mandates regarding communication in other than English. OSHA recommends that safety instruction be conducted in the most appropriate language, but there appears to be no instance of the agency finding an employer legally at fault for not training in a language other than English.
But even foreign-born workers who seem fluent in English may be at higher risk. The worker’s country of origin may not inculcate in its workers an expectation that safety is a high priority, and that the worker can legally demand a safe workplace. He or she may be unaware that in the United States employers and safety professionals are required by law to comply with many government safety requirements.
And, if injured, he or she may be baffled by the complexity of health care delivery in the United States. A recent survey of injured workers by the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute revealed that workers who preferred to speak in Spanish found getting medical care exceptionally difficult.
Many employers, frankly, have some catching up to do. Here’s a shortlist of best practices:
Peter Rousmaniere is a journalist in the field of work injuries. He is the author of Work Safe: An Employer’s Guide to Safety and Health in a Diversified Workforce (2013). It is free and available online.
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