Covid-19 has thrust the issue of workplace safety into the limelight, especially for frontline workers such as nurses and doctors. However, one group of workers have long been exposed to higher risks of injuries on the job but have received little attention towards their plight, and that is minority workers.
- Minorities at Risk
- Possible Reasons for the Disparity
- What Employees Can Do to Help
- The Bottom Line
Minorities at Risk
A joint study undertaken by researchers from USC and Boston University found that Latino immigrants and African American men were most susceptible to workplace injuries out of all ethnic groups.
Based on data gathered from close to 12 million workers, researchers found that foreign-born Latino men aged between 18-64 had the highest risk of getting injured at the job, at 13.7 per 1,000 workers. African American men came second with a 12 per 1,000 workers injury risk. This is in comparison to 11.8 and 10 injuries per 1,000 workers for white men and Asian Americans, respectively.
The same study also shows a higher propensity for minorities to be disabled on the job, leading to an inability to work. The risk of on-site disability is the highest among African Americans, at 4.2%, followed by foreign-born Latinos at 4.2%.
Workplace-related injuries in general can have far-reaching repercussions for those affected. A study published in the Psychological Medicine journal reveals that recovering workers are much more likely to get post-injury depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and adjustment disorder.
Possible Reasons for the Disparity
So what’s driving the differences in health and injury risks between different ethnic groups? Here are some possible contributing factors.
Higher Risk Occupations
One of the reasons for the disparity simply comes down to the type of jobs minorities are more likely to take on.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics analyzed employment distribution by race in 2018. Their analysis reveals that Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be employed in blue-collar positions. These hard-labor jobs are not only more physically demanding, but also present a higher risk of occupational injury.
According to the BLS report, Hispanics make up the largest workforce (up to 55%) of painting, construction, and maintenance jobs. Blacks also represent more than one-quarter of such positions, which include home health aides and security guards.
Workers involved in manual labor are at a much greater risk of developing Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) and other types of ergonomic injuries due to the physical and repetitive nature of their work. According to various sources, close to half of all construction workers often develop workplace tendonitis and back pain.
The nature of work exposes minority workers to a higher risk of work-related injuries.
Another factor that must be considered is workplace bias that disproportionately places minorities in higher-risk job positions.
According to Seth Seabury, who led the study mentioned earlier, the data shows higher injury risk factors for minorities even after accounting for other variables such as level of education.
Whether consciously or not, employers and managers may be assigning high-risk jobs and tasks to minorities. Perhaps, African Americans and Latinos, or even immigrants are seen as tougher and more used to difficult conditions. In other cases, it may come down solely to discrimination.
Communication barriers may also play a role in higher incidences of workplace injuries, especially among foreign-born immigrants that are not fluent in English.
Safety procedures, manuals, and workshops are typically conducted in English at most companies. For foreign-born workers, this can present a major obstacle in getting all the crucial information needed to stay safe on the job site.
According to Sherry Baron of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, foreign-born Hispanic workers have a 70% higher rate of work-related fatality compared to native-born Hispanic workers. Language barrier is cited as one of the potential reasons for the higher fatality.
What Employees Can Do to Help
While modern companies have made huge strides in decreasing work-related injuries, there is always more work that can be done, especially in the area of narrowing the injury risk between workers of different ethnic groups. To that end, here are some ideas:
Implement a More Inclusive Injury and Illness Prevention Program
Adopting or overhauling an existing injury and illness prevention program (IPP) is one of the easiest ways to better protect workers - including minorities - from occupational injuries.
Typically, it involves coming up with a process that helps identify and address all of the major hazards in the workplace. To be effective, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration recommends the following for your IPP:
- Active participation of employees, supervisors, and management
- Identification and evaluation of specific work hazards
- Averting any hazards identified
- Providing training to all employees about workplace safety
Companies should take steps to make sure all employees understand thoroughly and adhere to the guidelines of the company’s IPP, including non-native English-speaking workers.
Look for Systemic Bias within Management and HR
To ensure all workers are being treated equally, companies should also look for any bias from within that may be unfairly exposing minority workers to high-risk jobs. Company safety records can be audited periodically to discern any unusual patterns, and if found, take steps to remedy it systematically. This may include offering management and HR unconscious bias training and having leaders clearly communicate that discrimination of any sort will not be tolerated.
Encourage Two-Way Communication
Finally, companies should foster an environment that encourages open communication between all levels of the workforce. This way, all employees - including minority workers - can freely share their day-to-day working experiences and concerns. If any of them feels uncomfortable doing a particular job or working for a given number of hours, they shouldn’t feel intimidated to share this.
The Bottom Line
For a myriad of reasons, minority workers continue to face a higher risk of being injured on the job in the US. Only through greater awareness and companies taking personal responsibility can we start to tackle this silent inequality in the workplace.