The Multicultural Work Force: The Melting Pot Heats Up

March 13, 2006
Every year, people from all over the world come to the United States in search of a better life. They come with dreams of freedom and opportunity, and bring with them a rich tapestry of challenges for the safety professional.

In March 2004, a van carrying 10 people in Washington state collided with another vehicle. The van driver and four passengers died, while the other five passengers were seriously injured.

The driver was wearing a seat belt, but authorities concluded that the other passengers were not. Perhaps worse, authorities also discovered that one of the van's seats was not bolted to the vehicle.

It's an all-too-common scenario in Washington state, officials say. Forest workers - often immigrants - are driven to the work site in vans that have been modified to carry brush. On the way to the work site, the workers might ride unsecured in an empty vehicle; on their way back, they might ride on top of forest products or wedged into small spaces behind the driver's seat, with knives and machetes rattling around the van.

While, clearly, the onus is on employers to provide transportation that meets motor vehicle and workplace safety standards, what compounds the problem is that immigrant workers might not consider such conditions hazardous.

"They might know there's a seat belt, but if seat belt laws aren't enforced in their country of origin, they might not think it's a big deal," explains Veronica Bronkema, Spanish communications manager for the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries.

Bronkema adds that workers might come from a village where it's common for people to ride on a chair on the back of a truck - which means they're not likely to raise an eyebrow at being driven in a van that's been gutted to carry forest products.

Foreign-born workers' inexperience in recognizing hazards and their reluctance to report them is just one example of the complex set of challenges these workers present to safety professionals.

Notwithstanding the fact that many immigrant workers, hungry for any job they can find, gravitate toward the most dangerous occupations and industries, foreign-born workers tend to bring minimal knowledge of safety practices and procedures to the job.

"In Vietnam, there's no protection at work at all," says Ngoc Huynh, coordinator of the Community Awareness Campaign on Occupational Safety, a Falls Church, Va.-based organization that educates Vietnamese workers about occupational safety and health. "They get used to it. When they get here, the most important thing to them is earning money, and they'll take whatever job they can earn money from."

Whether they come from Ethiopia, Mexico, Vietnam, Laos, Venezuela or Somalia, most immigrant workers share that same mindset. Occupational safety and health and the hopes and dreams of immigrant workers sometimes make an awkward fit.

For example, because many immigrants have grown to mistrust authority in their home countries - usually for good reason - they're not likely to go out of their way to report an injury or a hazardous condition to their employer for fear of being fired or deported.

"There's a huge fear of speaking up," explains Suzanne Teran, program coordinator for the Labor Occupational Health Program at the University of California-Berkeley, which promotes job safety through cooperation with unions, government agencies and other groups. "Many immigrant workers think [hazardous conditions] are part of the job. They believe 'that's what I have to do to earn money so I can send it home.'"

Immigrant workers' reluctance to report injuries or workplace hazards is just the tip of the iceberg, however. Safety professionals need to overcome language barriers and jump other cultural and social hurdles in order to ensure that their immigrant workers know that injuries and illnesses aren't just "part of the job."

Bilingual Training

Communication is a fundamental currency for safety professionals. When workers and safety professionals speak different languages, safety professionals need to take extra steps to make sure their messages on safety and health are understood.

The "Cadillac" version of communicating with immigrant workers, in the eyes of Teran, is to adapt your safety training curriculum to the languages of your workers - such as "having a trainer fluent in Spanish carry out the training for Spanish workers."

Lizzette Vargas-Malpica, occupational safety and health specialist at the University of Maryland's Department of Environmental Safety, recently interviewed three immigrant workers in the Washington, D.C., area about their attitudes toward job safety and health. The workers who came from El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico told her they prefer both verbal instruction and written materials to be bilingual.

"A lot of times we just think of translating the material into Spanish," Malpica says. "For them, it's important to have it in [English and Spanish], so they can relate the concepts in Spanish but also have the meaning in English. That way, if they want to communicate concepts to their supervisors, they will be able to voice their concerns in English even if it's in broken English."

Angela Molis, health, safety and environmental coordinator for ShawCor Pipe Protection LLC of Pearland, Texas, has heard similar feedback from her largely Hispanic work force. She says workers often take home materials written in English to teach themselves how to read in English.

However, Molis cautions that safety professionals should not assume that all immigrant workers can capably read or write in their native languages.

"[Immigrant workers] bring various reading levels to the workplace," Molis explains. "It could be second grade, high school, vocational school, technical school, college. Some people can't even read their own name."

That's why Molis keeps sentence structures and concepts simple in her bilingual training materials. It's also why she employs this simple strategy when it comes to her training documents and handouts: "You read it to them."

Because of such inconsistencies in immigrant workers' literacy levels, Cindy Coe Laseter, OSHA's Region 4 administrator in Atlanta (where, Laseter notes, the immigrant population is "exploding"), says the agency has found it "much more effective to show pictures" as opposed to written materials.

"You show the wrong way and then the right way," Laseter explains. Laseter adds that the agency plans to disseminate more fact sheets and how-to sheets with photos and graphics in the future.

While experts might view bilingual safety training as the Cadillac of communication tools, there are other options - such as having interpreters convey a trainer's words to the non-English-speaking audience either during the training session (simultaneous interpretation) or immediately after the session (consecutive interpretation).

Another possibility, Teran notes, is having interpreters convey a safety trainer's words to non-English-speaking workers via headsets - a technique employed at last year's World Congress on Safety and Health at Work in Orlando, Fla.

Teran, though, warns safety professionals against asking a volunteer from your work force to interpret during a training session.

"We visited one company that had done this. The person could speak Spanish to a certain extent, but he was not fluent," Teran explains. "The workers were not getting much out of the training at all, because the interpreter was not interpreting correctly and did not have enough of a base in Spanish."

Get to Know Your Work Force

While hiring a professional interpreter or translator for safety training and other safety functions can go a long way toward bridging the language divide, there's more to it than meets the eye. (For tips on how to choose a translator, see the sidebar.)

For example, not all Latinos speak the same type of Spanish. Dialects among Latinos vary from country to country and even from region to region within the same country, just as they do here in the United States.

That can make interpretation and translation a bit tricky. As ShawCor Pipe Protection's Molis puts it: "You have to get to their Spanish," whether that's "Tex-Mex Spanish or the Spanish of their region."

While there can be huge language variances among Latino workers, Elaine Fischer, communications manager for the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries, says it's quite the opposite for eastern European workers in Washington. The agency has found that most eastern Europeans - whether from Bosnia, Russia, Yugoslavia or Romania - speak Russian.

"Russian might not be their first language, but they learn it in school," Fischer says. "It seems to be a common language among all of them."

The department also has found its eastern European contingent to be better-educated than other immigrant groups; most eastern European workers have at least a high school education, Fischer notes. The agency also has observed that most eastern Europeans immigrate here for different reasons than other groups - often for political or religious asylum.

While there are commonalities among most immigrant groups - such as their reluctance to report injuries and workplace hazards - there also can be huge differences. The bottom line, Teran concludes, is to get to know your immigrant work force "what their language skills are, their literacy skills, how to best communicate information to them."

A Culture of Trust

Overcoming the language barrier is just one element of an affective approach to protecting your immigrant work force. To be effective in communicating safety concepts to immigrant workers, safety professionals also need to consider the cultural belief systems that could affect the way these workers will learn about and participate in safety functions.

Many immigrant workers likely will need an orientation on the very fundamentals of safety: that they are entitled to a safe and healthy workplace; that it is their right and responsibility to report injuries and hazardous conditions to their employer and/or OSHA (and that they will not be punished for doing so); and that productivity and morale are functions of working safely.

Getting immigrant workers to feel comfortable in reporting injuries or hazards can be particularly vexing. OSHA's Laseter points out that Hispanics, for example, come from a culture of "not complaining."

"They've come here to make money, and they're making more money than they would in their native countries and then sending it all home," Laseter says. "They don't want to complain about their working environment."

Compounding the problem is that many immigrant workers are paralyzed by the fear - rational or not - that they will be reprimanded or deported if they rock the boat, while others are reluctant to participate in safety meetings and other activities because of their limited command of English.

The solution, experts say, is building a culture of trust - one "where workers, immigrant or not, are comfortable in raising safety issues and one where workers' concerns are actually addressed," explains Helen Chen, staff attorney for the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco.

Having bilingual safety training sessions and materials is one way to build that trust, as it sends a message to workers that "yes, you are Spanish-speaking and we value that; we want to get your input and we're going to facilitate that," LOHP's Teran says.

Laseter points out that 14 of her OSHA compliance officers recently attended an "immersion course" to learn basic conversational skills and construction terms in Spanish, and those skills have allowed the officers to make inroads with Spanish workers.

"You have to break the ice with them," Laseter says. "If you come across as a government worker and don't have the ability to chit-chat with them about some things and they don't feel comfortable, you don't get anywhere. We're really working hard to get more bilingual compliance officers."

Grow Your Own

Another approach to building trust is to groom one of your best immigrant workers - someone who exhibits a strong work ethic and safety consciousness as well as leadership qualities - to be a supervisor, crew leader or lead worker. If the worker is not bilingual, Fischer notes, the company could invest in providing the worker with English-as-a-second-language training or could communicate with the worker through an interpreter or bilingual family member or co-worker.

Fischer calls this approach "growing your own bilingual employee."

"Not only would the employee have a good understanding of the people he works with and be able to set a good example for the other workers, it also shows the other workers that the company takes safety seriously," Fischer says. "It shows that they're willing to invest in safety."

It's an approach that has worked well for Molis at ShawCor Pipe Protection, as she has found that immigrant workers tend to be more receptive to training and instruction if it comes from one of their peers. At ShawCor, model plant-level employees are groomed to be "zone leaders," and these zone leaders' responsibilities - which are rewarded with an increase in pay - include conducting toolbox safety talks and training new workers on safe work practices.

"When it's coming from somebody who walked in right off the street and learned the job, [the other workers] figure 'if they can do it, I can do it too,'" Molis says. "'If they found the American dream, I can too. If they can come here, better themselves, develop skills, make a life for their family and be here for 20 years, I can too.'"

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