Health Promotion and Protection Important for Low-Wage, Immigrant Workers

The non-traditional workforce, which includes immigrant, transient and low-wage workers, often is overlooked when employers establish health protection and promotion programs. By ignoring these workers, employers can increase the disparity between them and those in stable, better-paying jobs, saidherry Baron, coordinator for occupational health disparities for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), during a presentation at the 2007 Worklife National Symposium on Sept. 10.

“This is why it is so important to incorporate innovative programs and projects for the non-traditional workforce, a population that has been traditionally hard to reach,” she said.

The U.S. workforce has changed dramatically throughout the years and an increasing number of foreign-born workers are taking on jobs that are non-traditional, which means they are either temporary, low-wage or less likely to be unionized, according to Kaori Fujishiro, a post-doctoral fellow working at NIOSH.

Reaching Non-Traditional Workforce

Due to the characteristics of non-traditional workplaces, getting such workers to turn to adopting a healthy work life comes with its challenges, she stated. “What we know from our experience with traditional work setting may not work in non-traditional work settings,” Fujishori said.

For instance, it's difficult to reach workers if they work at several locations and have no central meeting place. In addition, if the job is contracted out and the workers are temporary, employers may not be interested in investing in the health and well being of these temporary workers. Also, there is a lack of tools that are linguistically and culturally appropriate for the diverse worker populations, she said.

But not all is lost, Fujishori pointed out, as it's possible to turn such challenges into opportunities.

“Integrating health promotion and protection could be more effective or successful in nontraditional workplaces,” she said. “Unstructured work settings force us to rely on the workers' own ability to protect and promote their health.”

According to Fujishori, this could range from mobilizing personal resources to engaging in collective action, all of which would help workers take charge of their work, health and life.

Empowering Workers

Some organizations already have been successful in getting non-traditional workers to help take the first steps to adapt a healthier lifestyle at work and off the job. For instance, Pam Tau Lee, coordinator of public programs with the Labor Occupational Health Program at the University of California, Berkley, has been working with the labor group UNITE HERE to set up educational programs to empower hotel room cleaners – often female, immigrant workers – to take charge in advocating for better working conditions at the job.

“These women only have 7 hours during the day to clean, on average, between 18-24 rooms a day,” she said. “As a result, they work much faster than usual and don't take breaks.”

Because of this, many of these workers complain about aches and pains and being fatigued and out of energy at the end of the day, which also has an impact on the relationships they have with their spouses and their children. Lee emphasized that getting families together to offer a support network can be the first step in improving their mental, emotional and even physical health. As a result, the women can be empowered to speak up and take action to improve the quality of their work life.

Shelley Davis, deputy director of the labor group Farmworker Justice, said she also believes that empowering workers to take charge can do wonders in helping them take steps to improve not only their working conditions, but also their wages and occupational health.

“If you can get employees to be more involved [in improving their work life], you can be more successful,” Davis said.

Getting Peers to Spread the Word

Knowing that farmworkers are one of the many work groups that lack access to health care or health information (32 percent of male farmworkers in California had never been treated by a doctor, according to report on the health of California agricultural workers), Farmworker Justice has been using a peer education model approach that has helped them reach a segment of the population that safety experts have had a hard time reaching due to language and cultural barriers, Davis said.

According to Davis, the peer educators or “promotores de salud” are trained to educate workers about issues such as HIV/AIDS and occupational health and safety issues. The program has been successful, she said, as Farmworkers Justice and its partners “have recruited, trained and supervised 185 men, women and youth peer educators who have brought health prevention and health promotion messages to over 89,000 farmworkers and their families.”

“Having trained, well-supervised peer educators who are part of the target community can effectively convey health messages that focus on issues of greatest interest to the worker, whether it relates to their personal health or occupational health or both,” said Davis.

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