Skip to content

Culture is key to migrant workers’ safety, say OHS experts

By Mari-Len De Guzman

With a multicultural workforce, language and cultural barriers may often stand in the way of safety. When this happens, occupational health and safety experts suggest: a picture is worth a thousand words.

The immigrant working population has grown significantly throughout North America and Europe and employers are often faced with health and safety challenges that require more than just making sure these workers wear personal protective equipment.

“(Employers) need to learn some universal and general concept and ideas around culture, values and communication skills,” said Hector Escarcega, president of Bilingual Solutions International, a health and

 safety and risk management consulting and training firm based in Los Angeles.

Escarcega was a speaker at the recent Professional Development Conference and Expo hosted by the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) in Denver. In his session, Breaking Down Barriers with Your Multicultural Workforce, he gave attendees some pointers on effective approaches to communicating with migrant workers.

While ideal, having your entire workplace health and safety programs and policies translated into each native language that exist in your workplace is not always practical — especially if your workforce is the equivalent of the United Nations assembly.

An effective alternative is to use easily understandable pictures or pictograms to communicate the risks and the hazards to the workers, Escarcega said. A combination of pictures, words and translation is even better, especially when training the workers about the hazards and how to work safely around them.

“Don’t be afraid to use body language,” adds Escarcega. “Communication is done over 90 per cent in body language.”

When translating communication materials, keep in mind the education level of your workers, and use everyday language they use in their native tongue.

Still, having translated safety materials and adding pictures to your safety signs may not be enough to ensure your cultivating a safety-conscious multicultural workforce, said Escarcega.

To be able to communicate effectively to your migrant workers in a way that would make them understand where you’re coming from, you have to first understand where they’re coming from.

“What’s important is to understand their culture,” Escarcega said. “By understanding your multicultural speaking workforce, production, quality and safety will improve.”

For example, he said, new immigrant workers tend to form a collective group and gain their identity as a group. This is a key element in learning how to motivate them.

Certain cultures also have stronger connection with their family. Many of them work in a foreign country so they can send money to their family back in their home country.

“Many times they will ignore the hazards (at work) because they are desperate to make a living,” Escarcega said. It’s best to take note of this fact about your workers when implementing a new safety program, conducting safety training or when communicating safety messages.

Cultural differences pertaining to gender can also be vital information for safety managers, said Gerard Hand, president of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) based in the United Kingdom.

For example, in certain cultures the men might inherently be averse to taking orders from a female. In such situations, Hand said, the company can make sure that this group of migrant workers is placed under the supervision of a male supervisor.

Hand, who was also a speaker at the ASSE conference in Denver, said about 70 million of the more than 200 million migrant workers around the world are in Europe.

One of the more challenging industries for health and safety where migrant workers are concerned is in agriculture, he said.

The United Kingdom alone has seen a huge increase in the number of migrant workers in the last two years. In the summer, more than 3,000 migrant workers work in agriculture. This number drops to about 1,500 in the winter, Hand said.

Worker orientation, before the work even commences, is a key step to ensuring the safety of immigrant workers.

“Certain accidents are likely to occur in the first three months of working,” Hand said. Like Escarcega, the IOSH executive recommended the use of translations and pictures when training workers about the hazards.

As important as worker orientation before commencing work is testing the workers on their understanding of the information they have been provided.

“Make sure you’re training by standards and make sure the trainers speak the language of the workers they will train,” he said.

Add Comment