Protecting a Multilingual Work Force: Last Year There Were 21.4 Million Foreign-Born Persons in the U.S. Labor Force, and They Died on the Job at a Far Greater Rate Than Native-Born Workers. What Can You Do to Protect Them?

By Nash, James L. | Occupational Hazards, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Protecting a Multilingual Work Force: Last Year There Were 21.4 Million Foreign-Born Persons in the U.S. Labor Force, and They Died on the Job at a Far Greater Rate Than Native-Born Workers. What Can You Do to Protect Them?


Nash, James L., Occupational Hazards


In August, the Bureau of Labor Statistics jolted those working with foreign-born workers when it released a census of fatal occupational injuries for 2004 loaded with bad news for immigrant worker safety (see sidebar one). The number of fatal work injuries involving Latino workers, many of whom are foreign-born, rose 11 percent in 2004 after declining for the two previous years. Fatal injury rates for Hispanics also rose.

What's more, the wave of immigration is continuing: From 2002 to 2004, the number of foreign-born workers grew by about 1.2 million, accounting for a little less than half of the total labor force growth over that period.

The good news is that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), OSHA, consultants, industry groups and professional societies, such as the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), are developing programs and practices to help employers deal with a challenge that is likely to grow if present trends continue: protecting the foreign-born worker.

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START WITH THE JOB

When most people think about improving the safety and health of non-English speaking workers, they begin with training. That's not the way consultant Regina Barker sees it.

"The first thing we have to do is design the job for the diversity in the workplace," says Barker, a certified professional ergonomist who is the owner of Practical Ergonomics, a consulting firm with headquarters in Kansas City, Mo. "And then we have to make sure the PPE fits. After that's done, we can worry about training."

Jobs and the machinery they require should be adjustable to the changing work force. Barker, who has worked on ergonomics issues for the American Meat Institute, illustrates the importance of careful job design by referring to the disparity in the height of Asian and Latino workers, as opposed to Caucasians or African-Americans.

Barker believes the Japanese notion of "poke yoke," e.g. "mistake-proofing," is worth considering when designing a job. While this approach makes sense from a purely financial perspective for any job situation, it can make even more sense given the training and communication hurdles confronting an employer with a diverse work force.

"We also have to think if we have the right size of PPE to fit the culture," says Barker. For example, the fingers of an Asian woman tend to be thinner and shorter than those of Caucasians, while a Hispanic will have thicker fingers. Africans have a wider nose bridge, something to remember when ordering safety glasses.

THROW A TRAINING PARTY!

Finding a person who speaks the language of the workers involved is an obvious requirement for effective training. But to leave it at that is "simplistic," according to Sherry Baron, M.D., coordinator of priority populations at NIOSH. "In terms of creating training that is appropriate, you have to think not only about the language, but also the form of the training."

In other words, the training has to be presented in such a way that people will be able to learn from it. For example, foreign-born workers may not be literate, so it's usually better to rely on visual aids instead of the written word. "Most adults are visual learners anyway," adds Barker.

Effective training also needs to pay attention to cultural differences. "You can't just translate the words, you have to translate the concepts, and do so in a way that is meaningful to people," says Baron. For instance, people in other countries have very different experiences with PPE and with the enforcement of safety and health laws, according to Baron.

Cultural differences extend beyond concepts and life experience. Baron says NIOSH is experimenting with the use of "tele-novelas," or Spanish-language soap operas, to communicate with Latino immigrants because, "it's an important part of Latino culture."

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Barker makes the same point in a different way. …

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