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Diverse Workforce

Why Are Injury Rates for Some Employees So Much Higher than for Others?

March 30, 2023
Better training and engagement can help address this workplace issue.

As with any safety goal, understanding your current state—and how it evolved—is the first step in charting a course to get to your future state.

“What I have noticed in my 20 years in the field is that at the beginning of my career, the emphasis was about the number of injuries in total,” says Monique Parker, senior vice president, safety, environment & health at Piedmont Lithium, a developer of lithium hydroxide for the electric vehicle industry. “At that time, we didn’t look specifically at who was being injured. The goal was to make sure those numbers were low.”

But there is a reason for that, says Parker. At that time, companies did not have the time, knowledge, skills and tools that are available today to analyze data to that level of detail. The goal was to hit world-class status and that meant reducing injuries across the board.

Jumping ahead a couple decades, statistics are now available on who specifically is getting injured. And the most recent figures (for 2021) show a deep disparity between different people.

The share of Black workers fatally injured on the job reached an all-time high in 2021, increasing from 11.4% of total fatalities in 2020 to 12.6% of total fatalities in 2021. This statistic comes from the 2021 Consensus of Fatal Occupations Injuries from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The number of fatalities for this group climbed from 653 in 2021 from 541 in 2020, a 20.7% increase. This translates into a fatality rate of 4.0 per 100,000 FTE in 2021, an increase from 3.5 in 2020. And Hispanic or Latino workers saw a fatality rate of 4.5 per 100,000 workers. (The overall fatal occupational injury rate is 3.6.)

What is causing such a disparity, with the fatality rate for Blacks nearly three times the national average? When Parker took a closer look into worker injuries across her career, which includes stints at Unilever, Owens Corning, Albemarle Corp. and Hexcel Corp., she discovered a root cause: training. “There was a difference in how people were trained,” she says. And that difference arose based on how the material was taught and how it was absorbed.

The most traditional way of training employees is to put people in a single room, present a video or have them listen to a presentation. But not everyone learns best that way, says Parker, and valuable training material is being lost. That’s especially true when comparing different sets of employees.

A Safety Mindset

Addressing this disparity can take a number of forms. Of course, the first is understanding how to account for an employee’s perceptions of safety. For example, Parker suggests using a type of program, much like a personality test, which can provide insight into someone’s safety mindset. For example, if someone has a high tolerance for risk, they won’t always see a risky situation. So, training must teach them how to uncover risks. Or if someone is more of a rule follower, they need to have a wider view of a situation to understand risks. “So, my job is to provide training that can meet people where they are,” she notes.

Digging deeper into the concept of meeting people where they are, distinct groups, such as Black and Latino employees, bring different perspectives to situations. These can be regional or generational. Companies need to take these varying perceptions into consideration when creating safety programs. “When everyone can get to the personal level, past the data, we have a clear view of the safety issues,” explains Parker.

The Plant Level is Where Injuries Are Happening

Looking at the source of the injury is how companies will be able to fix the disparity. “Sometimes companies view what’s happening at the plant level as a local problem, as opposed to a company problem,” says Parker. “I see my job as communicating to the highest levels of the company, based on data, where the problems are and how we should address them. These are not the usual things that companies are looking at so those at the senior management, C-suite and board levels need to understand the issues.”

Once the company is aware of the issues, the next step is to look directly at what the frontline leaders are doing, says Parker. Are they able to provide the right tools to distinct groups when it comes to safety training? Are they doing things the same way they have always been doing them and not looking to change based on their own personal perceptions? These are some issues that need to be explored, she notes.

Privilege Walk

Looking at the entire organization and how they view safety is more complicated than it sounds. From a corporate perspective, the organization might be implementing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs and therefore they conclude that the company is becoming more diverse. However, often leadership at the very top of the company has not changed.

Parker has a unique way to help people uncover their own perceptions. The goal is to offer a survey, which she calls a privilege walk, to help people understand the concerns of a diverse population. The 30 questions focus on specific situations that people might find themselves in. For example, one of the questions is: Have you ever had your electricity turned off?

While many companies call this unconscious bias training, Parker prefers this method of using actual examples to better understand what other people face, as opposed to merely looking inward to uncover a person’s bias. Once companies understand where employees are coming from, per se, they are better able to create a more effective safety program.

Action Steps Companies Can Take

Parker sees engagement as the next step in improvement. “After the training is completed, you need to have engagement at all levels. And it can take various forms. Companies can create social opportunities for employees, or they can offer a variety of committees within the organization that allows employees to delve into a variety of issues if even those issues are not directly related to the primary job. The goal of this is for employees to explore things that are important to them but still be within the realm of the organization.”

Viewing safety from this more personal level is the cornerstone of safe practices at work, says Parker. “When it comes to safety, it’s personal. When a person feels that they’re valued, that they’re heard, that they’re important, then they’re going to be willing to do those extra steps to make sure they’re safe and others around them are safe. But if they don’t feel valued, if they just feel like another number or another employee, then they aren’t going to be going the extra mile.”

Understanding the structure of your organization and how it plays into improving safety is important, Park adds. “You must ensure that you keep frontline leaders and supervisors in that sweet spot because they’re really the bridge between the employees and the leadership.”

Future Thinking

Meeting people where they are is the future of how safety training will evolve, Parker believes. “And part of that is learning to analyze data in terms of race, education and experience. You look at a person’s background and history—all of those things encompass how they retain and learn and hear things. And we need to push that type of thinking up to the boardroom.”

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